While on a road trip with his daughter, a video director I once worked with named Wyatt Neumann took and posted some candid photos of his daughter being a kid. And because kids aren't the most modest of creatures, in some of these photos she wasn't fully clothed. While the photos Neumann took were intimate, his audience wasn't. Anyone could view, comment on, and use his photos however they pleased. And they did. Before long, he found his Instagram account shut down and himself accused of exploiting his child in the most horrific of ways. His images and the ire they inspired is now the subject of an art show and book, but in the immediate aftermath, he was clearly caught off guard.
While most of us will never find ourselves in Neumann's position, the ability to publish our most intimate and mundane moments to a potentially unlimited audience is not without its more common pitfalls – from revealing private and potentially damaging information to people you don't know to annoying the people you do know. As a writer and consultant, I advise brands on how to get the most benefit and the least damage out of the content they share online. When my daughter was born, I realized that the same advice I gave my clients could help our family, as well.
Here are five strategies we decided to use.
1. Ask yourself: Why am I posting?
I always ask my clients what their goals are, so we can figure out which communication tools will help them achieve them. The same goes for individuals and families. Someone whose goal is to keep in touch with far-flung loved ones should be using social media very differently from someone who is trying to get a job. So before you post anything anywhere, ask yourself, does sharing this help me accomplish my goals? If the answer is no, then perhaps you should keep it to yourself.
2. Segment your audience
Does the person who went to high school with 15 years ago really need to know how bad traffic was this morning? Could broadcasting your political views hurt your career? Smart businesses speak to loyal customers very differently than they speak to prospects. It’s called audience segmentation is a good policy for personal communications, as well.
One way to segment your audience is to use different sites in different ways. I find that Facebook is great for keeping in touch with people, so when I have a truly noteworthy update, I post it there. Twitter, on the other hand, is a great place to share my ideas and announce work. Mixing it up can be dangerous. Just ask Anthony Weiner, who might still have a political career if he’d chosen, say, SnapChat instead of his very public Twitter account for his sexual liaisons.
In addition, most social media sites will let you create groups so you can share different types of posts with different people. For example, when I want to share something that's happening in my life on Facebook, I only share it with people I've designated as my "inner circle," whereas I spare everyone but my professional contacts posts about my latest work projects.
3. Know the difference between push and pull.
Social media is what's known as "push" media, because you're broadcasting (or pushing) your information out to a group of people on a site they already visit. Websites, blogs, and some photo sites are "pull" media, because you need to pull people in for them to see your content. When you have a big announcement to make – new job, new baby, new wife – push is a good tactic to make sure everyone hears about it. More intimate stuff is better reserved for pull. The people who really want to know your political views or see all 300 of your vacation photos will make the effort to visit the site you published them to. Everyone else will remain blissfully unaware.
4. Set rules.
All brands have rules around how they express themselves visually and verbally. Most parents set rules for their kids, but everyone benefits from setting and following guidelines. These can range from common sense, like never post after you've been drinking, to personal ones like not using your kid for your profile image. These rules can extend to other people, as well. You can (and should) prevent people from tagging you without your permission. You can block friends from posting to your wall. Remember: only so much is in your control, so one rule that everyone should follow is this: never share anything that you wouldn't be comfortable with the whole world seeing.
4. Practice moderation.
Ultimately we share things on social media because we want to draw attention to ourselves or to whatever it is we're posting about. If you've ever hidden someone for posting too frequently or unsubscribed to an email newsletter that arrived every day (or more), then you already know that posting all the time is a great way to get ignored. Posting less often will not only force you to think through what you share, but it will also mean that when you do have something say, the people who want to hear it will be more likely to listen.
5. Think through the consequences.
Snapchat aside, sharing information has never been easier, or more permanent. Which means that everyone has to think about what they post today in terms of what it could say about them years and even decades down the line. We've all seen the fallout from public figures or companies sharing poorly thought-out posts online. And most parents warn their kids about the potentially damaging effects of having a permanent record of youthful exploits made public. But we all get older and change our perspective over time. While we can't always predict the future, just as Neumann couldn't have possibly predicted how his innocent photos would be misinterpreted, with a little imagination it is possible to guess and make conscious choices to protect yourself not only today but in the future.