When Rebecca Alvarez decided to share a cheeky family photo on her Facebook page she never imagined there would be a backlash.
I felt judged. Some of them were more about public shaming than giving me advice in my best interest
Alvarez, a media sales consultant and mother of two from London, isn’t a prolific online sharer so didn’t think too much about posting a photo of her toddler with a bare bottom on her page. “The post was a funny, innocent photo,” she says. “Normally my posts receive a good reception.”
But, after initial likes and positive comments, the criticism started, someone responded with ‘Very funny but take this off. There are a lot of perverts around.’ Then, a barrage of negative comments followed.
Alvarez says it wasn’t long before she was stopped in the street by acquaintances asking her to delete her post. Numerous private messages landed in her inbox from people advising her to take the picture down because ‘it’s not safe,’ despite it being a private post.
“I was made to feel I had done something wrong and it was a reflection on me as a mother,” she says. “I felt judged. Some of them were more about public shaming than giving me advice in my best interest.”
The experience has made her much more circumspect. “I would still post things on social media in the future, but I’ve learnt my lesson,” Alvarez says. She feels lucky that on that occasion the episode didn’t filter through to her colleagues or workplace.
Word made its way back to her employer, including her manager and disciplinary proceedings for gross misconduct were initiated – Claire Knowles
Claire Knowles, a partner at law firm Acuity Legal, says one of her clients was not so lucky. Messages on her client’s private Facebook page put her job in jeopardy. “She effectively posted that her manager was an idiot and incompetent in his role – potentially a form of cyber-bullying,” says Knowles. “Word made its way back to her employer, including her manager and disciplinary proceedings for gross misconduct were initiated. “All the employer needed to show was that the posts could have caused offence or damaged the company’s reputation,” Knowles adds.
Knowles’ client, who can’t be named for legal reasons, says she didn’t set out to bully her manager and was only venting frustrations. The client claims she wasn’t aware of a workplace social media policy and hadn’t received training on it.
The employee was given a final written warning - the only reason she wasn’t dismissed was her length of service and remorse, Knowles says.
Think before you share
When colleagues are part of your social media audience you must have the same level of self-governance as within any other work environment, be that at your desk, or at the office party, says James Murray, associate director at global recruitment firm Robert Walters.
So after a brief, naive, free-for-all, is social media steadily silencing us? A Pew Research Center study shows it is making us increasingly more inhibited and less likely to express our real views, on current affairs or real life.
This anxiety explains the rise of WhatsApp, where users can message select friends privately, or apps like SnapChat, where the message self-destructs, rather than the user's reputation, has been fuelled by demand to express opinion without judgement.
And be warned just because you’re ‘off the clock’ from your day job doesn’t lessen the risk of getting into trouble at work if you do post something that backfires.
In July The Telegraph reported that a British Council executive Angela Gibbins will face disciplinary action after writing a critical post about HRH Prince George. The newspaper also reported that an Instagram post about feeding meat to vegan diners in Derby, UK, got head chef Alex Lambert fired.
“Staff usage of social media reflects on the company even if staff members aren’t officially managing that organisation’s social media channels,” says Chris Lee, head of digital strategy and training consultancy Silvester & Finch in London. Employees can easily let slip confidential information, or their opinions could reflect negatively on their firm, he says.
Because of this first-to-publish mentality; we can see why we’re less inclined to self-filter because we’re in such a hurry to produce something that’s funny or shocking
Can your posts also damage your chances of landing that dream job elsewhere? Well, yes. Social media is now an integral part of the vetting process, whether companies admit it or not.
A study by recruiter, Robert Walters, found half of employers are prepared to research candidates using social media, whilst 63% have viewed a job seeker’s professional social network profile, say social network LinkedIn.
Disinhibition can happen –where we can’t see ahead to the impact - Nathalie Nahai
Anyone can get themselves into hot water if they don't think before they share, says Steve Nguyen, a leadership and change consultant in Dallas, Texas. But reflection is sometimes forgotten in the rush to post. “Because of this first-to-publish mentality, we can see why we’re less inclined to self-filter because we’re in such a hurry to produce something that’s funny or shocking,” says Nguyen.
So if we know the risks why do we still do it? Disinhibition can happen –where we can’t see ahead to the impact, says Nathalie Nahai, web psychologist and author of ‘Webs of Influence.’ Online communication is mediated through a screen creating distance and sometimes anonymity and that leaves us feeling we can comment and post on whatever we want – often in a way that we wouldn't in real life.
Self-promotion and self-censoring
Online, the loudest, flashiest self-promoters grab the attention, not necessarily the most accomplished. This approach fragments our identity, say the experts. We increase the posts that portray us in the image we like to be seen and decrease the posts that show how we’d rather not be perceived.
But to be sure, social media has given more than it’s taken away in the last decade.
“There is no evidence that social media decreases the quality of our relationships, makes us withdraw, or diminishes our ability to relate and be in the moment,” says Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Centre in California.
The key is always balance and monitoring whether any behaviour is adding to or taking away from your own goals and experience, she says.