Social or personal – where to draw the line?

We are accustomed to being so ‘connected’ these days that it is refreshing to take the bus to the station in the morning and to realise that there are people who don’t give two hoots for ‘social media’. I make this comment as it was apparent from the interactions and conversations on the bus around me at 7.30am on my way to the UCISA-SSG Using social media to communicate event, were clearly of people who take that same route at that time, every day of the week, every week of the year, holidays excepting. The familiar face is greeted as they get on, the comments as they disembark are of a jocularity built over many days of shared travels.

So what does this have to do with Social Media? It is widely acknowledged that when you interact with colleagues or customers, that using face to face contact or the telephone is the most effective way of getting your message across. We are all familiar with the misunderstood comment in an email, on Twitter, on Facebook etc. and have seen the sometimes furious back-pedalling to extricate the commentator from their self-created dead-end. Yet we persist in communicating via such means as technological communication strategies have become so all pervading and sometimes to the neglect of true sociable contact.

It has got to the point where our IT team has even connected a washing machine to the network, so that it can communicate with…well with what exactly? Does it email the local supermarket for washing powder? The mind pops with the potential permutations, but suspects that it is merely a means to manage the system’s maintenance cycle or fault management. In our own homes, high end consumer durables are connected to the internet, Samsung announced the first Internet connected commercially available television at CES swiftly followed by Sony with a similar announcement and then Google comes out to play too. The multiple screened reality of the film Minority Report is very much here too as per this video. All of this wonderful technology is pointing to us very much living in the future. It has arrived, but where are our lives in all of this?

I feel consumed by the need to check work email / personal email / Facebook / Twitter & other sundry ‘social’ and ‘anti-social’ media types, including text and answer phone messages, but where is the separation between my work and private life defined? A friend who recently upgraded to the new iPhone espoused the joys of not having work email on the new phone as he felt that it was a release from the constant need to keep on top of things, even on days off (he works in marketing). Conversely, another friend has never had a ‘Smart’ phone and is desperate to get one, as he feels cut off from the world around him.

My opinion is that my collection of pictures of me as a student should stay personal for me, my friends and my family. They know that I have a past, but the legacy of that past may not appeal to my employer, or to a potential new one. Yet despite my desire to try to maintain a separation, the line is blurred for myriad reasons. I have worked for or around the University for the last six years or so and I have made friends with colleagues. I have been out with them to the movies, to the pub, to their weddings or other social events and so it is practically impossible to separate the work from the private in social media forum of Facebook.

I could choose to edit those who bother to follow me on Twitter, but then that is counter to the arguably narcissistic nature of micro-blogging. Why would I even bother to ‘tweet’ if I wasn’t interested in how other people interact with me? I can tweet using my ‘work’ identity, but then I run the risk of upsetting the ‘corporate voice’, rightly so I hasten to add, by making some sort of disparaging comment about how badly the England cricket team are playing, or the state of Southampton Football Club’s precarious position at the top of the Championship. No, it is better for the thoughts of Chairman Gordon to stay in the realm of my private Twitter feed, but no culling, as I might never build up a following that suits my oversized ego. Better for the follower to decide whether they wish to put up with my Red (and White) Book, albeit in the short form of 140 characters.

Facebook on the other hand, is a wholly different version of Pandora ’s Box. I revel in the regained contact with people from my past who I knew in the time before the internet and the advent of social media. I delight in the pictures and memories that have emerged from our collective past, the ‘Timeline’ of our lives and finding out where the past has now moved on to. However, at what cost this near history pictorial archaeology? What damage to career prospects might a picture have, of someone passed out in a drunken stupor with ‘Idiot’ written across their forehead? No such picture exists of me to the best of my knowledge, but the point is there. I have mentioned my real life social interactions with people from work, with whom I am now ‘friends’ via Facebook, but the consequences are there for all to see.  This is before we even consider the risks of running an approved ‘institutional account’, where I suspect, although I have never done it, it will be all too easy to forget the audience you are writing for and say something inappropriate.

My employer, I would like to think is a tolerant one, but that indulgence will certainly not apply to all the people who pass through our venerable institution. We are charged to prepare the student body to enter the world of employment at a level that an employer is happy to take on. The disconnect between Digital identity, digital echo and reality has been looked at elsewhere by the This Is Me Project, but we still need to be aware that we should unleash fully prepared digital natives on the marketplace. Should we therefore be counselling the separation of certain branches of social media from others? Should they really connect all their accounts together? Should Twitter be able to feed LinkedIn and then on to Facebook and then all the way round again? The ease with which all these media can be joined up is very much a double-edged sword. I have separated all of them in order to divide or perhaps even protect my various personae, the Facebook man-child revelling in re-discovering the past while posting silly pictures of parental antics with my son, the Twitter ignoramus occasionally pontificating, and the LinkedIn polymath-wannabe that secretly wants to run the combination of Google, Wikileaks and the BBC website.

I am now happy with the separation that I have, although maybe I should wind back some of the access privileges that people have to my Timeline on Facebook, which would then enable me to engage more ‘socially’ with my work colleagues. I am happy working through the constraints that the ‘corporate voice’ places upon me while I work the departmental Twitter feed, but I am somewhat daunted with the huge freedom that a personal Twitter account offers me. I ‘might’ consider offering my sage thoughts, but then most of them are already being offered by those much wiser than I and frankly, the people on the bus almost certainly don’t give two hoots for these ‘social’ thoughts anyway!



For those interested in the storyboard of tweets from the UCISA event, see:

Event information:




Internet connected commercially available television at CES:

Minority Report  style screen:


This Is Me Project:


About Gordon Roberts

I work for The University of Reading IT Services as Directorates and Schools Liaison Officer, looking after Faculty and Student Liaison. I manage the IT Services Newsfeed, Twitter feed (@unirdg_ITS) and the ITS Homepage I also manage the IT Services Desktop IT Support teams.
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2 Responses to Social or personal – where to draw the line?

  1. Libby Graham says:

    A really fascinating insight! I try to maintain a clear work/personal separation – I have a work Facebook and Twitter and a personal Facebook and Twitter – something that others may disagree with and may say that my on-line presence isn’t showing the “real me”. However, I do friend people on my personal Facebook that are colleagues so it’s not too obsessive. But I have a rule – never post something on either that you wouldn’t mind the whole world seeing because no level of security is foolproof! Is that my cautious, HR training talking? Or just being sensible? It does lead to very few Tweets being sent but a lot of watching and reading of others – is it just a demonstration of the difference between an introvert’s view of Social media as opposed to the extrovert view?

  2. Great post Gordon – think Libby’s points are valid as well. I think it’s increasingly difficult to separate work from personal/social; for me, Twitter is now much more for professional use but isn’t a corporate account so that I can interact with people without fear of saying something that might adversely affect the University (e.g. misrepresentation of corporate stance). But Libby’s point about saying stuff online that you wouldn’t mind saying face-to-face is a good one and one that should be remembered as a rule of thumb or as standard etiquette; hiding behind an avatar flinging insults is cowardly and wouldn’t be tolerated in ‘real’ life. Facebook is mostly for me to stay in touch with people, very much social use, but I’ve made friends with people at work and those who have added me as a friend I’ve accepted. But I wouldn’t be friends with managers/senior managers, for example, as that would push the boundaries too much and might compromise their position in future. Watching and reading what others say is no bad use of social media, but don’t forget that you’re still entitled to your opinion and shouldn’t feel too restrained from commenting if you wish to. People value intelligent and balanced comment.

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