Coined sometime in the mid-1990’s, though nobody is positive by whom, the term “social media” wouldn’t become household for another 20 years.
Today, Facebook, Google, and other heavy hitters in the Internet industry are making a push to get the whole world connected sooner rather than later, hearkening to a future where everybody on the planet is always online, all of the time.
Older folks will remember a time before the Internet, back before AOL startup CDs marauded mailboxes monthly, and before the sound of the Internet groaning to life preceded every session of “surfing” the World Wide Web.
Privacy was a different thing back then. It existed on its own, without the word “settings” or “policy” attached as suffixes. Finding somebody meant looking them up in the local phonebook, provided that they were actually listed.
Today, social media has replaced the archaic phonebook, and in the same way, we’ve lost the white and yellow pages, the line between the personal self and the professional brand has also been blurred.
As the web has evolved and grown more complex as a technology over time, so has our relationship with the web itself. Our identities live online, as do our bank account numbers, our lists of friends, and every public tweet, status update, and pin.
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We are no longer simply living with the Internet, we are living in it.
From Making a Living in It, to Simply Living in It
Once dismissed as an impossibility, we now live in a time where a business that can survive without the Internet, let alone a social media profile of some kind, is very rare. In the same way, human beings without connected social media profiles or a digital/social footprint are also rare. We all know somebody (who knows somebody that knows somebody) who lives “off grid,” but, for most of us, that simply isn’t possible--especially if that grid is how we make a living!
Kashmir Hill, a writer for Forbes, calls our obsession with the Internet, and more specifically, with social media, “digital dope”. She points out that social media has permeated our lives so completely, that most of us won’t trust somebody if they don’t have a profile on the Internet, preferring to believe that they’re more likely hiding something than that they’re technologically illiterate or simply “opting out”. Some might even go so far as to call the inability to be contacted easily at all times “socially irresponsible”.
Interestingly enough, the rules (or what you might call the “social norm”) regarding Internet visibility for both businesses and individuals have become almost indistinguishable, and this is why those with a career in blogging are poised so opportunely to succeed.
You Are a Personal Brand, Whether You Like It or Not
Marc Ecko, in his 2015 book "Unlabel: Selling You Without Selling Out", makes one of the most significant statements that an entrepreneur in the modern era should pay attention to. He says: “I am a brand, but I am not a label, you too are a brand.
Whether you know it or not. Whether you like it or not. A brand is not skin-deep. Labels are skin-deep, but a brand, a true, authentic brand, is made of blood and bones, skin and organs. A brand has a heartbeat.”
This quote says a lot. It brings to attention the fact that even if you aren’t “self-employed” that you are still always visible to the rest of the world, “advertising” yourself via your social and digital footprint. That footprint is the closest thing the majority of this world will come to experiencing the “blood and bones, skin and organs” that makes up you.
This is what the world sees as “your most authentic self,” and whether you think it’s mixed in with your personal brand or not, the rest of the world will associate your brand with the flesh and bone “you”.
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The fact that fresh high school and college grads are regularly advised to review and purge their social footprints to appear more appealing during the job search serves well to prove this point, as does the fact that 48 percent of hiring managers in 2015 decided not to hire a candidate due to something they found on social media.
With Internet Marketers, the stakes are even higher. Both a blog and its writers are constantly criticized for their authenticity. A faceless brand, even if it does have a social profile, is bound to be much less trusted than a brand with a spokesperson.
In the same way, a blog without an author (beyond the “default” WordPress account it comes with) will not gain, and I daresay does not deserve to gain, the trust of its readers. Even bloggers that use pen names will either merge or create new social and digital footprints with and for those names.
This is called providing social proof when applied to conventional business, and represents an opportunity for real people to connect with what they see as an “authentic” brand, but be wary. As the title of this article states, you can also be broken by your social footprint, and it’s much easier to do than you think.
Avoid Becoming Your Own Worst Legal or PR Nightmare
From Home Depot’s infamous race-related Twitter debacle to Pigalle chef Marc Orfaly’s reprehensible Facebook tirade, it seems like the world can’t go a week without somebody attracting the collective ire of the Internet. Watching what you say in terms of political correctness and authenticity are going to go a long way.
To put it more simply, you should always simply be polite and tell the truth. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t strive to be yourself on social media, or to say that you can’t make jokes or be risqué, it just means that you really need to watch what you say. One bad joke could mean the end of your career.
Justine Sacco provides the perfect example of a tweet gone wrong and how it can flip a person and their brand upside down. For anybody unfamiliar, Sacco, a PR rep with 170 followers at the time, tweeted a racially insensitive joke before boarding an international flight to South Africa.
By the time she landed, her tweet was the number one trending topic on Twitter. She ended up deleting her account after being fired by her employer and goes down as one of the most well-known victims of online shaming in recent history.
In the most extreme cases, losing your job, damaging your personal brand, and pissing off the entire world is just the tip of the iceberg. Just as social media can be used as evidence in civil suits, misuse of social media can also bring business lawsuits to self-branding entrepreneurs and freelancers.
Inc.com’s advice on how to avoid a social media lawsuit mentions that copyright and trademark laws, FTC advertising laws, privacy laws, and laws concerning illegal app development are what most brands usually end up in hot water over violating. Illegal app development is the doozy here, as people and companies that use social media for promotion are generally most at risk of running illegal social media contests without even knowing it.
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Just Be Nice and Tell the Truth
The takeaway here is to remember that you, as a participant in the most connected time in history, are the living, breathing, flesh and blood embodiment of your business. Your social media efforts, and, in effect, your social footprint, can either be one of your greatest tools for driving traffic, or your personal brand’s death knell.
Ohio University has a great infographic about the types of interactions a business might encounter on social media, many who are embracing “brand you” would do well to study and heed the advice give.
Nevertheless, the most applicable piece of advice anybody on the Internet can follow regarding their social footprint can be summed up as such: Be authentic, be professional, and be nice, otherwise, don’t be surprised if you end up as one of the most hated people on the Internet.