‘When Worlds Collide’: Navigating the Minefield of Social Media

Social media has made it possible to share the details of our lives — both intimate and minute — quickly and easily. But with that convenience comes a host of dangers as people’s personal and professional lives, and public and private personas, converge.

In “When Worlds Collide in Cyberspace: How Boundary Work in Online Social Networks Impacts Professional Relationships,” Wharton management professor Nancy Rothbard, Wharton doctoral student Justin Berg and Ariane Ollier-Malaterre, a professor of management at Université du Québec à Montréal look at the different strategies people use to manage their social media communications, and how those approaches impact the level of respect and liking that professional colleagues have for them. The paper was published in the journal Academy of Management Review.

In this interview, Rothbard describes their findings and also offers advice for people trying to perfect this balancing act.

An edited transcript of the conversation appears below.

Knowledge@Wharton: What were the main goals of this research?

Nancy Rothbard: With my colleagues, I was trying to look at this question of on-line social media and how it is impacting our work lives. Social media is really all around us in recent years. We see this in organizations, in terms of how organizations are using it to market, etc. But how it affects people’s work lives is what we were interested in. This is really where the title, “When Worlds Collide,” comes into play. We were really interested in how the personal and professional lives of employees can become blurred on social media. This is where we really see opportunity, but also challenge, for people.

We did some interviews as we were doing this work, and one of our interviewees said, “Social media or social minefield?” And that really sums up, really beautifully, I think, the inherent paradox here. We have both a new world opening up for us where social media has so many amazing opportunities to connect, to enhance relationships and to build new relationships, but it also poses challenges for us as we think about how to manage the relationships that we have.

One of the big challenges is this notion of the invisible audience. When we connect to people on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, there are some people who are really following and responding to us, and who are “liking” us or “favorite”-ing us. Those people are … interacting with us in a visible way. But there are often a whole host of people who are invisible, who are in the background watching what we’re saying or doing, but are not actively responding. We often forget about them when we’re posing questions or when we’re posting information.

What will happen is sometimes the information that we post has some unintended effects in terms of how people respond to us. And that’s really what we were focusing on in this research — the consequences of different online social media strategies that people have.

“We have both a new world opening up where social media has so many amazing opportunities to connect … but it also poses challenges as we think about how to manage the relationships we have.”

Knowledge@Wharton: Could you describe each of those strategies?

Rothbard: We identified four strategies that people use. These are archetypal strategies — people might use a hybrid of these as well.

The first is called the open strategy. This is where people are willing to connect to anyone and everyone, and they post anything and everything: the good, bad and the ugly. They will share it with everybody. This is the strategy of authenticity, openness, of trying to connect broadly and fully.

The second strategy that we identified was one where people are much more careful about the audience that they choose to connect to. We call it the audience strategy. People who use this approach limit the audience who they are conferring with [by choosing not to friend people from certain areas of their lives, such as co-workers.] And this, by the way, helps with the invisible audience problem that I mentioned earlier. They also, though, will use a strategy of authenticity. They’ve carefully curated who their audience is, but they will express fully the good, bad and ugly to that carefully chosen audience.

The third strategy is what we call the content strategy. Here, people will choose to connect broadly to multiple audiences, but they will carefully curate their content. They will pick and choose what kinds of information to post. They will typically choose things to post that are more self-enhancing, that manages the impression that they’re [conveying] to other people.

The last strategy is what we call the custom strategy. These are folks who carefully manage their worlds by separating their audience. They will connect to multiple audiences, but they will carefully manage what gets seen by which audience. This is a much more difficult strategy to manage. You need to have some technologically sophisticated skills. And you need to monitor it [to make sure messages are sent to the right audience.] For example, on Facebook there are things like lists that you can use, where you have different lists and you have one list that can see maybe everything you post and then another list that sees only a sub-selection of what you’re posting. This strategy will, again, allow you to connect broadly, and it will allow you to verify and be authentic to one set of your audience, but to be more careful about what another audience sees.

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Knowledge@Wharton: What are some of the consequences of each strategy?

Rothbard: Each of these strategies has important consequences for respect and liking in the workplace, and how you’re seen professionally by others. One of the things that we see is that the open strategy might make you … deeply likable to some people. But again, with that invisible audience, there could be a whole bunch of people who might be offended even by some of the things [you post.] If you’re posting political views, some of your audience might be … right with you. But others could be silently a little bit taken aback by what you’re expressing.

There are some different consequences in terms of these different strategies. The audience strategy allows you typically to preserve the respect of others around you, but not necessarily enhance it if you’re not connecting with them. The custom strategy is the one that we would argue has the highest ability to both maximize respect and liking, but it’s hard to do. And if you make a mistake, then it can have a backlash because people realize that you’re actively managing what you post and you’re managing what they see…. The content strategy also will have the opportunity to enhance professional respect and liking, but again, you could go overboard on that. If your [posts are] too self-enhancing, people might be put off by that. And so there might be some backlash there as well.

“The custom strategy is the one that we would argue has the highest ability to both maximize respect and liking, but it’s hard to do.”

So all of these have tradeoffs, and they need to be chosen carefully. We have a couple of different thoughts about how to do that.

Knowledge@Wharton: What would your advice be to people for managing this complicated issue?

Rothbard: I think that there are a couple of different steps that you want to think about when you think about the strategy that you’re choosing and what the consequences are for your online social media presence and how that affects your professional reputation. First, you need to choose your strategy. Think about what your strategy is and what it should be. Maybe what you’re doing isn’t what you should be doing. So be thoughtful about what your strategy is.

Second, you want to think about what your goals are on social media. Is your goal to express yourself or to impress others? Think about whether you want to let the good, bad and the ugly all hang out, and whether you want everybody to see that, or whether you want to be more aware of your professional reputation and what impact that has on others and how that is seen by others. And so the impression management piece may be more important in terms of your goal.

The third piece that we really think is important in terms of how you manage this behavior is to also assess your fit with the professional context that you’re in. If you’re a lawyer, you may not be able to be connected with a judge on social media because there are regulations around that. However, if you work at a technology start-up company, the norm and the culture may be that all of you are connected and that’s how you interact; you participate in online chats and you do Facebook and you do Instagram, and all of that is part of how you relate to your co-workers. You need to be really aware of both your personal preferences, as well as your environment and how that all fits together.

Knowledge@Wharton: Tell us a little bit about how this comes into play if you’re trying to transition from one strategy to the other, or if you are coming back from a gaffe that damaged your reputation with some people?

Rothbard: I think that the gaffe part of the question is actually really important because people are very inertial in terms of their strategies until either a big gaffe happens where they get negative feedback about what happened, or if they are switching their professional context. There is usually some impetus for people to change their strategy. It doesn’t happen that frequently.

As an example, one of our interviewees had a situation where she worked at a synagogue and her rabbi had asked her if he could connect with her on Facebook. And so she said, sure, she was very active on Facebook. This was a Reform synagogue where they don’t abide by some of the regulations that the more strict Jews would….

She posted a picture of her son, who was playing a soccer game on a Saturday. And her rabbi saw that and said to her, “You know, as an employee of the synagogue I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to be posting a picture of your son, even though it’s this wholesome soccer game, on a Saturday. It’s giving the wrong impression because it’s Shabbat, and he shouldn’t be playing soccer on a Saturday.” And she was really taken aback by this, and a little surprised. She ended up unfriending him as a result. But it was a real wake-up call to her that she needed to be more aware of who was in her audience.

“Think about whether you want to let the good, bad and the ugly all hang out … or whether you want to be more aware of your professional reputation and what impact that has on others.”

These gaffes really do, I think, sometimes make people much more aware of what strategy they have. So sometimes gaffes can be good because they bring to light what your strategy is,, and whether you need to correct it because you need to be much more aware of how people are responding to you.

Knowledge@Wharton: Can you give us some examples from your research that show how social media has changed the nature of communication, and how we think about communication and who we’re communicating with?

Rothbard: Our research shows that what has changed really is that people need to be much more careful about thinking about their communication strategy. When we communicate face-to-face or over the phone or dyadically or in a small group, typically what happens is we automatically tailor our communications to our audience. We read their facial expressions. We look at their non-verbal cues, their body language. We usually know something about them, and so we’re more careful, automatically careful, about how we are tailoring what we are saying and how we’re saying it.

In social media, the whole point is that we’re connected to a broad audience. That’s really the purpose of it. But that makes it much more difficult to tailor our communications in an effective way. And there are, as we were talking about earlier, gaffes that people can make where they are not tailoring their communications in a way that they would just naturally do in these other media.

There are some really spectacular examples from the media recently. There was a U.S. Marine Corps member who was running a Tea Party-related Facebook page. He posted negative comments about Obama, not really realizing and forgetting about the fact that there was actually a policy, a Pentagon policy, that limits the free speech rights of military members. What ended up happening was he was discharged, not honorably, because he had violated this policy when he said something extremely negative about Obama.

There was another example that involved Twitter where Bob Parsons, who was the CEO of Go Daddy, he was an avid game hunter, and he had posted a video of himself on Twitter … shooting an elephant in Zimbabwe. PETA really got very, very exercised about this, and he ended up having to step down as CEO. So there are a lot of ways in which we see that social media has one, opened up doors. It has opened up amazing doors in terms of allowing us to connect really broadly and impactfully in ways that personalize who we are and make people feel connected to us. But it also creates the challenge of how do we do this in a consistent and positive way, such that we don’t have some of these really spectacular disasters that can befall us, or even small disasters that can befall us along the way.

Knowledge@Wharton: What’s next for this research?

Rothbard: We’re going in a lot of different directions. One of the directions that I’m really excited about is a project that’s looking at online social media and how that helps with teams. One of the things that is really challenging in today’s environment is we’re oftentimes working in global teams where everybody is not co-located. We’re interested in seeing how online social media can be really positive for people who are working in non co-located teams. And asking the question, do some of these online social media strategies help more than others?

Another way that we’re looking at going forward in this research is looking at the question of hierarchy. One of the things that came up in a lot of the interviews that we did with folks initially around online social media usage was the question of hierarchy and how the online relationship is thinking about connecting with your boss, thinking about connecting with your subordinates. Once you cross those hierarchical lines, how does that really impact your work relationships?

A lot of our interview subjects actually likened … being Facebook friends, for example, with their boss to being Facebook friends with their mothers. And so that hierarchical line, I think, is a really important one. We’re also doing some research trying to understand how people react to that, and what the consequences are for crossing those lines in the workplace.

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