A Question of Boundaries

I’ve written before about how confusing it can be to navigate this new world where your boss follows you on twitter and your mom reads your professional blog. It got me thinking about the sorts of boundary problems people can run into in meatspace as well. I was thinking it might be interesting to find analogs for various online activities. Of course, there are complications….

Inside the corporate firewall: This one’s easy. It’s like being at work. Now, sometimes at work you’re giving a presentation to an EVP, and sometimes you’re at the cafe talking about weekend plans, but you’re inside a building paid for by your employer and as such you maintain certain boundaries. All my content that’s internal is considered “at work” even when it’s light-hearted water cooler stuff.

A career blog: Thank you, Jeremiah Owyang, for giving me a new term for a personal blog that refers to professional topics. This blog is one, and there are many others (much more interesting) out there. It’s like wearing your employer’s badge, while not in the office. Maybe you’re at a conference, or at lunch. You might be on your own time, but you are wearing a tag that says who you work for.

Personal (but not anonymous) : This is a personal online presence using your real name. It may be linked to work (my twitter is linked from my career blog), or distant (a personal blog with an intended audience of family and close friends). The common thread is lack of anonymity, but the difference is in the advertisement and invitation. On one end of the spectrum this is like a cookout at a co-worker’s house, with a bunch of people you might not know but who know who you are. On the other end it’s like a town festival you’re attending with extended family, where people might run into you, but not because you invited them there. There are subtle differences in the boundaries in those areas, but you can’t expect that your audience has the same sense of boundaries that you do.

Anonymous (but not masked) : Here you are not using your real name at all, but you are not trying to hide who you are. A Star Wars forum where you go by the handle “Arby-Wan” and have an avatar of a roast beef sandwich with a light saber would fall into this category. Ever run into someone who might be a co-worker in a situation like that? Did you have a feeling-out process to try and decide whether it’s safe to talk about work there? That’s learning where the other person’s boundaries are as compared to yours. I compare this to a pickup sports team, or a group of war game players who meet at the comic shop every week, or any other social club. The norms and social structure of that environment bear no relation to your professional life. You are probably very comfortable there, and have certain expectations about how you can behave there. And yet someday a co-worker may show up at your pick-up volleyball game, and you have to decide how to handle that.

Masked: Here, you deliberately hide who you are. When engaging in activities online which you fear would impact your real life, you try to build as much of a shield as possible. This doesn’t have to be unsavory activity, there are plenty of reasons you would want to be anonymous. The closest “real” analogy I can think of here is an anonymous support group. Whether it’s addiction recovery or a terminal illness, there’s an expectation of near-sacred trust in the agreed-upon anonymity of these environments. But what happens when a co-worker appears at your AA meeting?

What am I getting at?
These problems are not new. The potential for professional or family complications exist in all the interactions I describe above. What are your boundaries if you invite a co-worker to a bachelor party, bump into a college buddy at a tech conference, see a customer on vacation, or find out your volleyball team captain now works for you?

Online, though, it’s all permanent. When your boss comes to your weekly poker game, you can clean it up a bit. But when he finds the internet handle you’ve used for the past ten years, that forum post you made about skipping work on the release day of Star Wars Episode I is forever part of his mental image of you. No avoiding it.

Plan accordingly, but don’t let that paralyze you. After all, you want a digital footprint, right?