When a Colleague is a "Friend": Facebook Users Get a Crash Course in Reputation Management

Early users of Facebook and other social networking sites now find colleagues, customers and bosses on their profile list. As their Friend lists have expanded to include more professional contacts, they've had to monitor their profiles more carefully.

As more professionals sign up for Facebook, the site's earliest users are finding they must reevaluate how they manage their profiles and the information posted to them, according to experts in online identity and reputation management.

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The extensive amount of personal information Facebook asks people to share — including political views, religious affiliation and relationship status — presents a conundrum for users of all ages who have begun networking with customers, colleagues and superiors via the world's fastest growing social network.

"You really want to sit back and analyze something that you put in your profile," says Kirsten Dixson, a personal branding strategist who helps people with online reputation management. "It's fine to share those personal activities and views if you feel so passionately about them, but you need to put on a professional lens when you read that content."

Early Facebook users (most of whom are in their early 20s) have grappled with this issue since the service opened its doors to professionals in May 2006, following a quick progression in which the social network became more and more open to new members.

Alison Driscoll, 22, who works as a marketing copywriter and who pens a blog on marketing, joined Facebook while a student at Boston University, which was one of the first non-Ivy League schools to join the network. "My roommate and I were very proud of this fact and joined as we heard about this cool new way to procrastinate," she says.

Driscoll took a job working for a small company outside Boston that specializes in search engine optimization and social networking. Between her job and her blog, she knew many people outside her regular circle of friends would want to friend her. (She declined to name her employer.)

"My profile is private, meaning only friends can see it," she says. "But I vacillate on whether this a good or bad idea. I feel like people reading my blog may want to check out my profile without having to friend me. However, I want to friend people who read or follow me, so it's a catch-22."

Despite keeping her profile private, however, she's maintained a professional feel. "I was warned by several professors [before she graduated] to 'clean it up,'" she says. "My profile is still very representative of my personal life, but acceptable for the professional realm I work in."

Lessons from Problematic Profiles

When Facebook CEO and cofounder Mark Zuckerberg first launched the site in February 2004, it was only available to Harvard students. Later that year, he expanded the service to include other colleges before making the service available to anyone with an "edu" e-mail address in 2005, which included most colleges and many high schools.

Since the site became available to professionals, a slew of media reports has emerged that chronicled students getting turned down for jobs by prospective employers after recruiters and HR departments found pictures of them binge drinking or doing drugs. But analysts say focusing on these storied (and often embarrassing) examples misses the overall point: It's not just freedom to share party pictures that troubles Facebook users. It's the overall decision process for what personal information to share with employers and customers who try to friend them over the service.

According to Fred Stutzman, a social networking researcher at the University of North Carolina's School of Information and Library Science, the problem cuts to a misconception that baby boomers and Generation X hold in their views toward younger people (often called Gen Y). "There's this whole myth that younger generations want to live publicly and share everything," Stutzman says. "That's not true. They have shared information within friends on Facebook. It was just you and your friends, and people liked it that way."

The ability for people to control access to their networks has often been an advantage Facebook has held over its nearest competitor, MySpace, which has been criticized as making the pages too available over the public Internet. Facebook offers a "Limited Profile" function, which allows users to friend someone but to control access for what they can view on the site. Stutzman says while the option is a good start, it might lack the specificity users need to customize the page settings for each new friend.

"It will also be a lot of mental effort," he says. "People will want to control with higher levels of granularity what information they share with whom. But say you have 500 friends on Facebook, managing that sounds pretty difficult."

Using Categories for Social Networking Contacts

Some have suggested users try to distinguish between their personal and professional lives on social networks by reserving Facebook for the friends and LinkedIn for work. But Jason Alba, CEO of JibberJobber.com, a jobs site, says there are too many professional merits of being on Facebook for users to ignore, including its growing and diverse user base. He also notes that Facebook offers a richer user experience than LinkedIn.

Justin Smith, who runs an independent blog called Inside Facebook, suggests that users control access through their "Friend Lists," which classify people into different categories. "They enable you to add people to lists such as College Friends, Work Friends, etc.," Smith says. "They set privacy setting per friend list instead of per friend. This will enable setting social boundaries."

"LinkedIn has this cold, sterile feel to it, where as on Facebook, you can have some personality," says Alba, who recently wrote a book entitled I'm on LinkedIn, Now What?

But how much personality people wish to inject into their Facebook pages—and to whom—might vary depending on the industry. "Professional services or banking, for instance, can be pretty conservative environments,"says Dixson.

Meanwhile, researchers believe the issue of users' public personae versus their private calling cards will become a component of managing one's overall online identity. Chris Dellarocas, a professor of information technologies at University of Maryland's R. H. Smith School of Business, says people should be given classes in how to manage the problem. "It should be taught in high school," he says.

Dellarocas believes, however, that trying to separate social networking lives over LinkedIn and Facebook is an exercise in futility.

"We might see a backlash towards social networks because of the privacy issue," he says. "But there's an inevitable trend towards transparency and away from privacy."

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