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Protecting yourself on social media, part 2: Practical Advice

Keeping your personal and professional lives separate online.

December 17, 2015

Lindsay Oden recently graduated with an MA in History from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. You can listen to his podcast and read his blog.


“Under which pseudonym shall I write today, ‘Ernesto Rafael Guevara de la Serna’ or ‘Lev Davidovich Bronstein’?”


Last month, I wrote a post about how to use the privacy functions on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to protect yourself at work by hiding your posts from people you don’t know. However, the downside to limiting the visibility of your posts is just that: it makes your online activity harder to find for people you aren’t already friends with. Julie Platt’s post on how to use social media to collaborate with other scholars illustrates how important social media is to modern academia. And Ashley Wiersma’s post on developing your online brand demonstrates how social media can help you land jobs and garner attention from peers. But maintaining an active presence online is troublesome. On the one hand, we don’t want to offend anyone or endanger our employment; on the other, we don’t want to hide everything we post from the people we want to see it. So how can we safely navigate the digital minefield that is social media?


My post this month will try to help you find a balance between privacy and visibility. Myra Ann Houser posted about maintaining a positive web presence, including advice like using your full name, not gossiping, and taking responsibility for everything you post. Similarly, Katy Meyers wrote a post about taking control of your online identity, offering tips on how to maintain a professional demeanor, engage with others, and keeping a consistent brand. In the same vein, Patrick Bigsby has offered guidance about your how you should present your political views online. These articles give great suggestions about what I’d call the frontward-facing part of your social media. My advice is about the backside of your web presence, the nuts-and-bolts of social media, and how to act strategically to ensure that you can post freely online, interact with colleagues, be professional, and stay safe.


The most important piece of advice I can offer is to utilize online anonymity when appropriate. We know that anonymity allows people to be more candid and cruel, often with terrible effects. But anonymity is also a potent political tool used by people who may be at risk of breaking the law because of their beliefs, and it allows scholars to speak openly about university policies which may negatively affect their lives and research. Therefore, if you hold a belief you think would get you fired or not hired, you can use social media under pseudonyms. That should protect you from Google searches and other tools used to examine your online history.


But there are other practical ways to keep your personal opinions separate from your professional life. I think we all believe in academic freedom in the abstract, but the digital world makes our unpopular opinions visible to more people in power, people who may wish to terminate your employment if they disagree with you. What you can do is follow this basic rule: if you are afraid of posting something with your real name, but you absolutely have to post it, keep it separate from your professional accounts. For example, if your website uses your name in the domain or has a link to your curriculum vitae, don’t post your manifesto there. Consider using a blogging platform or creating a new website with a catchy title. On Facebook, you can use the Pages tool to create a public profile that people can like, and you can post your work to it, but keep your personal Facebook profile private. Or you can have two Facebook accounts: one professional and one personal.What I’m suggesting is that you should rigidly separate personal and professional online presences.


If you want to attach your name to something controversial, you certainly can, but you should be aware that you might face backlash. This advice is not legal advice and may not protect you, but there are other ways that you can try to shield yourself from some criticism. You should make your associations defensible: if you are publicly posting content that may be offensive, be sure you’re not doing it as a representative of your institution (for instance, my Twitter and website don’t mention where I work now, so I can never be mistaken as speaking on behalf of my place of employment. You can also include a statement specifically clarifying that your views do not represent your institution.). Don’t post from work accounts or shared accounts.


Even more importantly, your politics should be defensible. If you have to express something online, be able to furnish evidence that can contextualize your arguments. In effect, be scholarly. Moreover, be professional, be courteous to interlocutors, and be aware of your tone. Using obscene or insulting language and resorting to ad hominem attacks draws the most attention and makes you look foolish and unprofessional. Not only can this discredit your points in the eyes of your audience, but it also represents your professional accomplishments negatively.


I can’t stress enough the importance of determining what should be considered public and what should be considered private. Once you post something, you don’t own it anymore, and it becomes controlled by your intended and unintended audiences. You have to ask yourself what is worthy of having your name—and your credentials, the name of your institution, and your future job prospects—attached to it. If you feel like you are willing to risk your reputation, then you should construct an online presence that is defensible and professional, and you have to be aware how employers, students, administrators, and boosters define what is and what is not acceptable.


Do you have practical advice for using social media? How has being in academia influenced what you post online? Let us know in the comments.


[Image from Wikimedia Commons used under Creative Commons license]


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