Personal vs. Professional: Social Networking Sites

I checked my email on Sunday night to find two new requests for “friend” status on my Facebook page…one was from a customer, the other was from my mother-in-law. The juxtaposition of requests brought directly home the conflict and confusion that some folks are having about use of the social media sites. Is your use personal or professional? Is it acceptable to mix the two? Would you and your contacts be better served if you have two separate online identities, a personal one and a professional one?

I am a firm believer in synchronicity. I think of Carl Jung and his notion of synchronicity (an acausal connection of events in time) often as I experience the unexpected confluence of events. This weekend was no exception.

  1. On Friday, I had time (for the first time in weeks) to tune in to HubSpot TV, a podcast done by staff members of the Internet Marketing firm whose products and services I use. They mentioned this issue of social media utilization and the possible need to keep one’s “identities” separate. One of their blogs addressed the issue on Friday and the author lays out some considerations.
  2. On Friday evening, my partner, Seth Krieger, suggested that I write a blog on social media and professional vs. personal concerns.
  3. On Sunday I got the Friend requests I mentioned above.
  4. This morning I looked at two print newspapers I receive: The New England Psychologist ran an article featuring input from Thierry Guedj, Ph.D., “Psychologists navigate use of online social networking sites“; and The National Psychologist included John Grohol, Psy.D.’s article “How ‘tweet’ it is: Social networking using Twitter”. Both of these psychologists explore some of the concerns unique to providers in the behavioral health community.

This confluence of events was impossible for me to ignore. I have found myself thinking about these issues often over the past several months. Since I began use of social networking as a way to spread our business presence more broadly on the Internet, the differences between personal and professional presence have been playing around the periphery of my mind.

While I have not seen clients for the last 16 years, I was trained as a psychologist and saw patients in a private practice and in a CD program setting from 1978 to 1993. I am well aware that boundary issues are confronted regularly by psychotherapists charged with providing a safe space in which consumers of their services can deal with issues ranging from relatively minor personal problems to serious chronic mental health issues. Protecting that ‘space’ is part of building trust and of maintaining the privacy of the client.

The sanctity of that space is challenged regularly, sometimes by the spill-over of the therapist’s life into the therapy. Personal illness and family deaths are regular intruders, but many others exist. I hosted a live, call-in television show on psychology topics from 1981 to 1983. Some of my clients were proud of the public education work I was doing; others felt that they lost a part of me that they owned and were not happy to share me with the public. As a feminist psychologist treating lots of women, it was not unusual to cross paths with a client in the ‘real’ world. Prior agreements about how or whether to greet in public aside, face-to-face interaction outside the therapy space was often a cause for discomfort for me and for the client.

Those challenges to privacy are part of the physical community in which we live. Now we add the complication of a virtual world in which massive quantities of information, both personal and professional, are available to anyone who bothers to Google us. Factor into that the fact that we have no idea which information the client has. Each form of social media provides different challenges.

1. blog: A weblog, or blog, can be an excellent way for you to provide useful information to your own clients and to many others who see your blog articles. But if you go out there into the blogosphere and take a look at the material available, you will find that the writing styles are much less formal than other published documents, especially journal articles. Because of that informality, there can be a tendency to slip into personal revelation.

Potential benefits:
Great way to become more known in your community, to educate and share valuable information with your clients, and to provide a community service through public education.
Potential risks: Informal style of blogs can lead you to share more personal information than you would usually do in journals or in direct contact with your clients.

2. Facebook: When I started to use Facebook, I intended that use to be purely personal. My nephew’s wife invited me to join first. I resisted. When an age-mate with whom I share a book club and a social sphere invited me, I joined. Facebook has been great fun! I have connected with classmates, friends and family members. As with many people in my age group, my postings are rather tame. They do reveal personal relationships and history. I was a little conflicted when business associates asked for ‘friend’ status, but decided that I do not live a wild and crazy life and there is little about me on Facebook that I am not comfortable sharing with customers and other business associates.

Potential benefits:Facebook is a great way to keep up with new family photos and to stay in more frequent contact with friends and family members who are far away.
Potential risks: If you do live a wild and crazy life and do not want your clients to know that, do not give ‘friend’ status to those clients.

3. LinkedIn: LinkedIn is the only one of the social networking sites I use that is designed for professional purposes. It is professional networking, par excellence. If you want to connect with other colleagues, this is the place to do it. If you are looking for a job, this is certainly the place I would start. There are headhunters who frequent the site looking for the most qualified individuals for their position postings. You can join groups that meet your interests and connect there with other folks who have like concerns. 

Potential benefits: LinkedIn is a great place to network with other professionals. It is designed for peer-to-peer connections.
Potential risks: If your clients/patients are other professionals, you might run into them here and need to make some decisions about who your network should include or exclude.

4. Twitter: Twitter is something else. I am still not sure about Twitter. I use it in a purely professional way. In fact, the name under which I tweet is @SOS_Software. The people I follow are other professionals who have similar interests. Those other folks are great sources of information. The tweets I find most useful are about articles, blogs and news that is relevant to my professional world. Most of the people who follow me are also interested in healthcare and software. Sometimes, I get a follow from someone who seems totally unrelated to anything in which I am interested. I blocked the clearly pornographic Follow that appeared last week.
     The way I use Twitter is totally contrary to the way most young people use it. To folks who are used to text messaging for everything, Twitter is a way to disperse text messages much more broadly. You can let everyone in your network know your status all at one time. To me, this is useless. To many others it is an essential part of staying connected.

Potential benefits: This is an excellent way to disperse a communication to a large group of people at one time. You could use Twitter to communicate educational information to all of your clients at once.
Potential risks: Twitter is like Facebook. Everybody who follows you sees everything. If you intersperse personal messages with your professional ones, everybody who follows you still sees all of it.

What do you think about these social networking sites? Do you use them? Does your organization use them to keep in touch with consumers? What do you see as the potential benefits or glaring weaknesses of being connected 24/7?

One last word of advice: If you decide to jump into the sphere of social networking, decide whether you are going to do so as a professional or for your personal needs. Once you decide, choose your networking sites accordingly. If you want to do both, you might be best served by having two different social networking identities.

0 thoughts on “Personal vs. Professional: Social Networking Sites

  • With the social networking sites, for me, it is all one. I am one person professionally and personally. I go out in the real world and socialize and network as well. My clients do become my friends over time, it’s inevitable. I feel I am a loving, caring person and do as much as I can to help my clients in both ways with their web site needs or their yard work or moving. I am glad I can be myself at all times. I am happy with who I am. Thanks Kathy. I love reading your SOS – at Large blogs! They have all been very informative and helpful.

    • Thanks for your comment, Gayle. For some people, this decision depends upon the particular business they are in. It has been very nice to be able to be friends with customers and with vendors and with service providers….and even with competitors. I was much more careful of relationship boundaries when I was a psychotherapist. Not so much need to do that now!

  • This is my first time checking yor blog. I love all the articles and this one in particular since I have not used any of the social networking sites and was wondering about the conflict between personal and professional information. The “new terminology” and the pros and cons are vere informative. Now I don’t feel so ignorant. Thank You. Ede Rios

    • Welcome, Ede. It is nice to hear from you. Social networking…blogging, Twitter, FaceBook, LinkedIn…all of these are useful to explore. Best to know your goal before you start!

      Thanks for your comment,
      Kathy

  • Vince Bellwoar says:

    kath,
    thanks for that blog. We are exploring setting formal policies and procedures for the use of all of the above (and email) by office staff (clerical and clinical). I do think that for risk management purposes, one should be very careful about communicating via these emerging methods. Separating the personal from professional is very important–but that is just the way I was taught here in the Northeast. I know there are different styles across the States.
    I think all this electronic communication poses interesting challenges to our and the next generation. Ironically, the more “hooked in” a young person gets to all the technology (facebook, texting, twitter etc), the less developed are their live, personal interaction skills. That’s good news to us psychologists who make a living by (mostly) teaching people how to interact/communicate. Bad news to a generation who may be missing out on knowing how to go out to dinner and have a 3 hour conversation without checking one’s blackberry every 20 min!

    • Thanks for the comment, Vince. I agree that a generation of people totally dependent upon their electronic devices is emerging without the skills to interact well face-to-face. They also seem to have little sense of the possible benefits of being unavailable electronically. Finally, privacy concerns are significant.

      I think you are right to work on policies for your staff. Hopefully you are including them in that work so they will buy into what is decided. Thanks for sharing your perspective.

  • Kathy….great blog! I’ve just entered into the world of Facebook and was actually quite dismayed that one of my clients requested to “friend” me. I have decided to refuse “friend” requests from patients as I consider it a boundary violation. While I do NOT live any sort of what you refer to as “wild and crazy” personal life, my professional therapist persona is frankly different from my personal one and I consider it important to keep it that way. To deal with this issue, I plan to establish a professional Facebook page that is distinct from my personal one.

    • Thanks for your comment, Bruce. While it can be fun and productive to have a presence in the social media world, I think you are right to try to create boundaries. Big challenge, though. Good luck!

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