Painting Your Digital Portrait

(The blog has been at rest for a while. I hate it when bloggers begin with big apologies that consume half of their content for the day. But it’s awakening – that need to write once again. And in the words of Forrest Gump author Winston Groom, that’s all I have to say about that.) 

Social Media Logotype Background

I spent a bit of the morning today piecing together the story of Natalie Munroe, the suburban Philadelphia teacher who was suspended from her job for writing profane and negative blog posts about her students. Later, Munroe was fired. After that, she filed suit against her school district. Yesterday, a US District Court Judge threw out the suit.

But this isn’t about Natalie Munroe (or Natalie M, the not-so-anonymous nom de plume she used on the infamous blog about her students,  or about what happened in the Central Bucks School District. You can look that up for yourself.

It’s about the self portrait that we paint every time we go online. Every tweet, every post, every “like” contributes a brushstroke to a picture of ourselves that…well, may not look quite the way we expect.

I’ve been thinking about this a while, and my musings were confirmed a few weeks ago. We had guests for dinner, and a 20-something talked about how he uses social media. “I use it all,” he commented while carving up the watermelon. “But everything I post has a very specific purpose – it’s very deliberate.” He told us that at job interviews, he assumes the HR folks already know a lot about him.

Because he’s painted a portrait that is out there for all to see.

Now, I’m the first to admit that I “like” Facebook more than the average person. And after years of spending (too much) time there, I’ve developed my own set of “do’s and don’ts” and my own set of pet peeves. I wonder, sometimes, if a few of the folks that show up on my news feed ever, ever look back at their own timelines and ask, “What am I saying about myself here? What picture am I painting?”

So indulge me, please, as I offer up my own set of suggestions to hone our digital portraits…the obvious ones first.

We’ll start with pictures. They’re worth a thousand words.

  • No pics of sex toys. Your own or anyone else’s. Or your naked or nearly naked friends. Or self. Ever. (Kids learn this in high school these days. Grown ups, take heed.)
  • Cleavage shots? Well, they may make you look well endowed. Just showing off your best feature, right?  Or they may make you look overweight. You decide. But…if every shot is a cleavage shot, there’s some serious self esteem stuff going on. Who knew?
  • If more than half of your photos involve adult beverages or bongs, you just may have a problem. Seriously, we know you’re a grownup. We know what a margarita looks like. Ditto jello shots, brewskis, fifths, and flasks. You don’t have to show us. (But if you indulge, please spare us your ramblings after you’ve downed a few. We can tell, you know. You’ll use the word “amazing” way too much and your sentences won’t make any more sense than they would if we were sitting at your table.  Except they aren’t funny once they hit the screen.)
  • Similarly, if more than half of your photos involve cats, you just may qualify as a “crazy cat lady.” Cray cray. Over the top. We won’t eat cupcakes from your kitchen, thanks.
  • If a whole lot of your pictures lately are selfies, you just might come off as a little self absorbed. If those selfies include even a few duck faces, a “Miley Cyrus tongue out” pose, or mouth-wide-open-as-if-on-a-roller-coaster, you can be assured that nobody wants to see any more of those. Even if you’re Miley Cyrus. It’s sad and old and if you are older than 12, kind of humiliating.
  • If lots of your photos are of food, it’s also a sign. Not that you’re obsessed with food, but that you may be a very bad cook indeed. We know what meatloaf looks like. Ditto stroganoff, zucchini bread, and a Whopper at the BK. Save the food pics for ceviche at a five-star place in Miami, or a steak on the grill that is truly picture perfect.

Now,  a word about that pesky “relationship status” thing: If you’re in a relationship with someone, check out THEIR online presence. Will your friends (or future employers or babysitter) click twice only to discover their pic on mugshots.com? If so, just keep the relationship to yourself. It’s complicated.

Sometimes, my friends, too much means….too little! Go to your timeline or your Twitter home page. Scroll back. Jumping on with 20 posts a day? I’m sorry if this sounds judgey, but you need to get a real job. Or a real life. If those 20 posts a day are nothing more than shared memes, buzz feed quizzes, or “You’ve got to see this! It’s sooooo funny!” videos, you might as well be posting duck face selfies. (Told you it was judgey. Sorry.)

Other times, too much is simply too much. “I love you and last night will live in my heart forever!” is a personal message. That is, one that should be spoken out loud to a real person. Not posted or tweeted or whatever.  Flip side: Sometimes “just the facts” are TMI. From the trivial (your grocery list) to the personal (the fact that you’re in therapy, or taking a whole lot of medication or have no money or PMS-ing) – sometimes it’s too much information. Tell your family. Tell your therapist. Tell a handful of close friends. But don’t put it on your wall. It’s like…writing it on the wall.

And when the wall meets the workplace…you could be in for trouble. Not long ago, an ER nurse was fired for posting pics of patients on a very crowded shift. Bad judgement, much like Natalie Munroe. Some corporations have strict policies on photography inside their facilities. Violate those, and you’re toast. But it’s not exactly subtle to jump online during work hours and pop out a tweet that says, “No one respects me! I’m outta here!” or “I hate this place!” or “These people are idiots!”

Looking for a new job? Boss on your friends list? Keep it to yourself.

Ditto anything at all if you’ve taken a sick day from work. Co-workers who had to cover for you really don’t want to see the online evidence that you really did your Christmas shopping that day. They don’t want to see your footprints on the beach. But if you’re really sick, what about the pics of used tissues and cold medicine, shots of you entering the door at Urgent Care, or holding the thermometer? If you’re that sick, just take a good nap. You’ll feel better.

And overall, you’ll have a digital portrait that leaves a better taste in your mouth. Because you’ve used your social media with a modicum of good taste.

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