Managing-online-personas_SQHave you ever met someone in real life after “knowing” him/her for years through online interactions, only to discover that this person’s behavior and manner in the “real world” is completely different – whether for better or worse – than what you had come to expect from communicating through electronic media?

I just returned from a 12-day cruise with more than 600 people who got acquainted first over a period of almost 10 months on a Facebook group page. A few I had sailed with before, but most I knew only from the social network. It was fascinating to observe how some felt like old friends even though we had never met in person previously, while others’ personalities were almost completely opposite that of their online persona(s).

This isn’t the first time that I’ve observed this phenomenon. It isn’t even strictly related to electronic communications. Long before the Internet became part of my life, I had – usually as part of my work – people with whom I interacted for a long time period over the phone or through written correspondence (a.k.a. snail mail) before we ever met in person. Then, as now, some of those people seemed very different in the “real world” from the way I had imagined them to be.

The Internet has greatly increased the numbers of people we get to know through their words without seeing their faces. In some ways, this can enhance the depth of relationships because we aren’t distracted by physical characteristics, and many people are more comfortable opening up and sharing their thoughts and feelings with someone who isn’t physically present. On the other hand, it can be easier to misinterpret another’s words when you don’t have voice tone, facial expression and body language to indicate whether those words are intended to be serious, sarcastic, or in jest.

Then there are people who deliberately create online personas that differ from the personalities they project in their offline lives. An entire field of study, cyberpsychology, has grown up around this. Some just take the opportunity to be a little more outspoken or slightly embellish their backgrounds or career situations (like the hospital orderly who presents himself as a “physician’s assistant” or the police Explorer who claims to “work in law enforcement.” Others create much more elaborate stories built on outright lies, like the bookkeeper living in a two-room apartment who pretends to be a Hollywood actor and posts photos of “her” mansion on her social network page.

This is different from the “persona management” that all of us do to some extent. Consciously or not, when we go online, we choose which facts about ourselves to reveal or conceal and which facets of our personalities to highlight or hide. In fact, we are always doing this in different aspects of our lives. Most of us behave differently depending on where and with whom we are.  The personality that you put on at work, especially if you work in a life-or-death profession such as law enforcement or medicine or in a conservative industry such as banking or corporate law, is probably more solemn and “professional” than the demeanor you display when you go out on the town for a night with your college buddies. The way you present yourself to your parents or your friends from church might be different from the way you act when you’re alone with your spouse.

We manage our personas in each of these situations to fit in, be accepted and avoid offending others. Managing your online persona in the age of social networking is often complicated by the fact that all of these different “circles” of people, who are normally isolated from one another in our offline lives, may all converge in one virtual place – such as your Facebook timeline – when you log onto the computer.

The reputations that we create online can help or hurt us when we take relationships to the next level – whether in the professional or personal arena (and you never know when what started as a personal relationship can turn into a professional one when a friend’s company has a job opening, or a professional acquaintance can morph into a close personal friend). It pays to be aware of the impressions you’re making, and manage those impressions to carry over in a positive way to your offline existence.

That means thinking about what you say, and to whom you’re saying it, before you hit that “Post,” “Comment” or “Tweet” button. I’ve seen far too many R-rated posts on Facebook that were obviously intended for a particular individual or group of intimate friends but were there for everyone in the Friends list to see – including co-workers, aunts and uncles, teachers and ministers.

There are two ways to effectively manage your online persona. The easiest is to keep all of your posts fit for everyone you’ve friended to see. This takes less effort but is also more limiting. The second way is to create separate circles (on G+) or friend lists (on Facebook) or their equivalent and get into the habit of setting the permissions on every post you make so that each post goes only to the appropriate people or group(s). This method requires much more vigilance, but allows you to interact more freely without having your different personas “leak” over into the wrong places.

Another good rule of thumb for managing your online persona(s) is to always assume that the people you meet online are people you might be sitting in the same room with someday.  Even if you never meet any of your online friends in person (which is getting less and less likely), assume that some of them may be friends with others who do know you in your offline existence.  Don’t tell tall tales that could come back to haunt you later. It’s far easier to destroy your credibility than to get it back.

All of this assumes that you have created one or more online presences. I know some folks who deliberately avoid doing so. They think that they can protect their reputations by not having social networking accounts or participating in online forums. Once upon a time, that might have been true. Today, unless you’re a complete hermit, there will be information about you online – probably more than you imagined.

If you don’t create and manage an online persona yourself, your cyber reputation will be created and managed by others. Do you prefer a web search on your name to turn up in the top results data that you’ve carefully filtered and put out there, or random info that was placed online by your friends, government agencies, etc.? Especially if there is negative information about you floating around out there, it’s important that you counter that image by overwhelming the search engines with positive information.

Many of us lead busy lives and managing your online person(s) might sound like just another chore that you don’t need. However, in today’s business and social environments, the time invested can save you a great deal of grief – or even help you land that dream job or meet Mr. or Mrs. Right.