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The Public Nature of Social Media Participation

A member of my personal learning network (PLN) posted a question on LinkedIn that essentially asked, "What topics should be included in an Introduction to Social Media course"? There are multiple ways to approach the subject matter and my response was that new users should think of social media updates as a "type of publication, broadcasting even, not just casual conversation."

When it's More Than Just a Conversation

There are instances in which a seemingly casual update, tweet, or post can cause problems after the fact. The defense is often something like, "what's the difference in a tweet and shouting my comment on a crowded street?" The difference is clear, and important: saying something into a crowd is fleeting, but social media provides a sort of recording of what you said, documenting it so that it can continue to be heard after the crowd disperses.

The following list includes just a few things to keep in mind as you enter social media's public forum:

  • Internet Hang Time: While it's possible to delete something you've posted (see guidelines from Twitter and Facebook as examples) it can take a while for it to truly "disappear" and it may remain stored on system servers and in cache memory for a lot longer than you think.
  • Copy and Paste: The ease with which web-based materials can be shared and disseminated beyond their originator's intent is not a new challenge. Copyright and Fair Use guidelines have struggled to keep up with digital formats. So while you may intend to share that rant or rave with only a small group, it can spread quickly with unanticipated consequences. Proof positive that this can happen to anybody is a recent incident when Randi Zuckerberg, sister of Facebook's founder, experienced having a private family photo made public when someone else shared it.
  • According to [you] … : Various forms of social media are now accepted as primary or source material in a range of writing and publication scenarios. The Electronic Frontier Foundation provides a Legal Guide for Bloggers to help you navigate the perspective of free speech as it relates to blogs. You can also cite, and be cited, in a report or academic paper. Take a look at the APA guidelines for referencing blog posts and wikis, and the MLA's instructions for citing a tweet. Check with the style manual designated for use by your institution to find out more.

Engaging in Open Communication

So, how can we move forward with social media amid these issues and concerns? Fine-tune an approach that includes: 1) knowing each platform's capabilities and 2) sharing information and opinions with the understanding that you may be associated with them at a much later date.

  • Be yourself. Sharing your perspective and opinions is what it's all about, but try to make your family and colleagues proud. It's too easy to post a negative comment or insult. Think it through and explore different ways to express your concern. offers helpful guidelines on balancing the personal and professional in "How to Be Yourself on Social Media – Without Freaking Out Your Boss."
  • Find a role model. Identify an account (or two) that impresses you in the way the user communicates and in the breadth of topics addressed. Note their overall tone and approach to sharing information and try to emulate that in your own account. You may even want to reach out and connect with them and express your interest in learning more.
  • When in doubt, ask. If you want to share something that someone else has posted, and you aren't sure if they meant it to be redistributed in this way, just ask them before you post. Zuckerberg urged her followers to do just this after the photo incident. Google+ helps out in these situations – when you click to share someone else's post, and it was originally shared with a limited audience, a prompt lets you know this and asks you to consider it when you decide how you'll share the post.
  • Check your settings, again. "Check your privacy settings" is at the top of most advice posts about social media use, and it bears repeating. Each platform handles privacy a different way and offers varying options, which change as the software changes. Know what you are sharing and with whom.
  • Give yourself a break. We all make mistakes, saying (or sending) something in the heat of the moment that we wish we could get back. When it happens to you, take the steps available to remove the regrettable comment from your stream, apologize if necessary, and move on. Make your subsequent updates positive and helpful ones.

There are many ways to benefit from active participation via social media, from online course communication to professional networking. The pros can outweigh the cons if you use the options wisely.

What are your biggest concerns about using social media accounts? Share your questions and lessons learned with us here.

Image credit: woodleywonderworks, Flickr, CC:BY