Strangers in the…

There is one crucial element of social media that is worth remembering constantly, but most people don’t particularly remember or bother about it.

Hold on to that thought – I’ll come back to it.

Before social media platforms entered our lives—which would be around mid-to-late-2000s, roughly—what were our avenues that seemed like social media equivalents, mostly offline?

Family gatherings? Office events? Events/gatherings based on our outside (of work) interests? Neighborhood meetings? Professional gatherings?

Given the lack of an online world back then, almost all of them needed us to go to a place offline and interact with people who had similar/shared interests. Chances are, we got introduced to the others there and made some ‘connections’ too – a far cry from a LinkedIn ‘connection’ nowadays.

Very few people had the opportunity to use a broadcast tool like print media, TV or radio, to air their thoughts – this is the equivalent of our current use of social media channels, and when you said something through an article in print media, or via an interview on TV or radio, you were essentially communicating with strangers. These people were usually accomplished in their fields to earn the call from broadcast media to use those platforms.

Here’s what seems interesting an evolution – before social media came into our lives, we had no avenue to speak to strangers on a daily basis. It was always with known (to a degree – closely known, newly known/introduced, and so on) people.

With social media (and not social networking: WhatsApp, Telegram, direct messages, etc.), we have the power to broadcast our views and thoughts to strangers, on a huge scale. The size of our immediate followers is not the point anyway; what matters is the network effect that often carries our words far beyond a small circle of people, known or strangers.

At a professional level, people are guided and educated about how to speak to strangers – leaders of organizations, media professionals, and so on. Normal people like you and me do not get trained. I have done media training to scores of CXOs during my PR stints and even those training sessions did not (they still don’t, mostly)include how the CXOs can interact via social media since that is a vastly more difficult channel than conventional mainstream media where there is a semblance of order, hierarchy, and rules.

But here we are, every single day, speaking to strangers via the many social media platforms easily at our disposal. Even within the platforms, Facebook usually defaults you to speak to friends-only (or friends-of-friends) – you need to choose ‘public’ as an option to speak with strangers. But LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, and others usually default you to speak with anyone who can find your content.

There are 2 ways to consider the strangers who stumble on your content.

1. The strangers, who are reading what we say on social media channels, have very, very limited context about who we are, what we do, and why we say what we say. They read it at face value and form a perception about us with literally what we said last on any platform.

Naturally, given this, they are more likely to not consider what we said with any background about us since they don’t have any. A school friend, college mate, neighbor, family member, or a buddy from the running club is not likely to behave that way when they stumble on something we said online because they have some personal and prior context about who we are, however limited. That context would be factored in to parse what they read about what we say online.

Broadcasting our thoughts to strangers is both a power and a curse, precisely because of this. In the media training sessions (geared towards media channels) and my personal branding workshops (geared towards social media platforms), there is a lot of focus on framing and articulating your thoughts to try to ensure that you are not misconstrued by strangers. The idea is to be as unambiguously clear as possible in what you want to communicate because people who have no context or who you are, and don’t particularly care for who you may be, would hear what you say and form perceptions about you.

In short, what you end up tweeting or sharing on LinkedIn should be treated with the same importance as a CXO making an announcement to all her employees, or a leader addressing an audience via TV. We dwarf our own audience based on rudimentary markers like follower count and the fact that we are alone while we are tweeting. Use a simple thumbrule: imagine an audience of 1,000 people in front of you as you type that next tweet or LinkedIn post.

2. The strangers could look up our profiles on assorted platforms – from Twitter, to a name search on LinkedIn and so on, but what they would end up seeing is very limited. It’s not just limited, but also largely based on what we have said about ourselves! Unless you happen to be a celebrity who gets ‘written about’ often.

So, if you are not a celebrity, you, yourself, are responsible for what people think about you because their avenues to ‘know about’ you are,
a. limited to online platforms, and
b. limited to what you have said about yourself, and your online digital footprint!

The 3rd option is that people could ‘ask around’ about you, but this happens when they are seriously considering you for something (employment, partnership, etc.), and not for simply knowing the person behind that smart/angry/abrasive/idiotic tweet.

So, remember the presence of strangers when you communicate and broadcast via social media platforms. You control what they think about you – they may not tell you what they feel/think about you, but people do add mental notes, one tweet of yours, or one LinkedIn post of yours, at a time.

This goes back to my ‘100 windows’ concept. I have written about this earlier too. See:
1. “I want to keep a low profile” vs. Personal branding
2. Do you need to be ‘authentic’ on social media?

Cover picture courtesy: Flickr.

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