Facebook is ten years old. Depending on your age, that may be entirely unsurprising because it feels like Facebook has been around forever, or it could be a startling reminder of how much social media has completely changed the landscape of communication and human interaction. It has also had a huge impact on the professional world, not least in the creation of a reputation based entirely on your online activity.

Potential employers, clients or business partners now have the ability to Google you before making a decision on whether to engage you or not, so it’s become a vital element of career management to monitor your ‘net rep’.

Mind what you say

Once upon a time, people set the world to rights in the pub, went clubbing, drank and danced until sunrise, and the next day they only had a hangover to deal with. Ill-judged comments made over drinks were recalled in humour and any incriminating photos only existed in print. The world is a very different place today. Now, comments made on Facebook, Twitter or other social media while under the influence are broadcast to the world and preserved for posterity, while the smartphone in everybody’s pocket means embarrassing photos are not only more numerous, but instantly shown to everybody your friend knows. Silly mistakes can cost you a lot more than a day’s chagrin. Witness Paul Chambers, a Twitter user who casually joked about his frustration at the snow-related closure of Robin Hood airport with a flippant comment about blowing it up. He was prosecuted under the Communications Act 2003 and subsequently lost two jobs. Only after three appeals was his initial conviction quashed and his reputation finally cleared. [1] Several high profile celebrities, including comedians Stephen Fry and Al Murray, supported Chambers, funded his defence and even paid his fine, but the case served as a stark warning to internet users: be careful what you say online. The lesson here is clear: Twitter is not the pub. Things you say online are subject to legal scrutiny as well as being available to the general public. So consider carefully before you tweet, especially if you’ve had a tipple and you’re getting into a debate. It's very unlikely that you will break the law, but it's still important to realise that online comments have far more impact than it would seem at the time. Think about the impression your comments would make on someone considering working with you.

And who you say it to

Image credit: Flickr user Toby Charlton-Taylor

Privacy settings are something of a double-edged sword. You may think your pages are locked up tight, only to be mortified when your mother mentions a saucy comment you made on a friend’s photo. Most social media websites and apps have privacy settings that you can use to make sure what you post is only seen by those you want to see it. Facebook lets you choose who each post can be viewed by, if you know where to look, and has the functionality to view your page as someone else would see it. Google+ allows you to specifically choose which ‘circles’ you share each post with. Twitter has an option to make your posts private to all but approved followers. But you have to know how these settings work to use them effectively. For any social media you use, take the time to learn how the privacy settings work and make sure you have them how you want them. Even once you have a clear handle on privacy settings, review them periodically, as they sometimes change without warning and things you were sure were private suddenly aren’t!

Be positive and proactive

Image credit: Flickr user Cristiano Betta

Net rep isn’t just about being careful what you don’t share; it’s also about actively engaging with others in a way that positively raises your profile. There are many ways to do this. If you don’t already have a LinkedIn profile, it’s worth taking the time to set one up. Having a publicly available profile of your professional history and skills also opens you up to the possibility of new business approaches from people who need your services, but whom you would never have sought out yourself. LinkedIn also allows you to follow major industry figures and to get involved in professional discussions by commenting on their articles, so use this facility to showcase your knowledge, establish yourself as a credible source in your field and widen your network. You can also use Twitter in a similar way. Many people choose to have two Twitter accounts – one professional and one private. This allows you to keep personal activity separate from professional and to engage with others in your field via public conversations and sharing of information. If you have a professional blog, Twitter is a good way to promote it and establish yourself as a credible expert. However, a word of warning – when managing more than one account on any platform, it can be easy to accidentally post under the wrong one. Make sure you’re in the right account for the audience you want to address! You could create different avatars and/or different backgrounds for each account, as a simple way to differentiate between the two.

Go Google yourself

Image credit: picjumbo

The best way to understand your own net rep is to Google yourself. Make sure you’re logged out of all your social media pages and clear your browser’s cache first to give yourself the same experience as a stranger. [2] Then perform the same kind of search on yourself that you might do to find a bit of background information on someone else. If you come across anything you’re not happy with, do something about it! Don’t forget to check the image search results, too. Invest some time in this and don’t forget to look at the pages you can access after the initial results page. Basically, investigate yourself to see how you appear online to someone who’s never met you in person. You might be surprised at the picture that forms.

Conclusion

So, while social media has its pitfalls, it can also have an incredibly powerful positive effect. The key is not to be so afraid of making a mistake that you don't reap the benefits that this technology has to offer.

[1] More information on the Twitter Joke Trial at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twitter_Joke_Trial (accessed 3 February 2014).

[2] Information on clearing your browser cache can be found at: http://www.wikihow.com/Clear-Your-Browser's-Cache (accessed 3 February 2014).