Ten years ago, the only real advice I got about staying professional while existing on the internet was, “Stay off the internet.” Unfortunately, that’s not an option in 2016. You can interview for a job and then come home to find a friend request from the hiring manager waiting for you. Or realize that familiar face from your friend’s Snapchat story was totally your former coworker.
Depending on what field you’re in, branding yourself online might even help you get a job. A rock-solid social media persona doesn’t just help people Googling you quickly figure out what your deal is; it helps you build friendships with other people in your field and show them how cool and smart you are.
Since the boundary between the personal and professional on the internet is so goddang murky, here are some guidelines to help you be both at the same time:
Consider your rating…
The barometer of chillness varies from office to office and industry to industry, but here’s a good way to think about things: What film rating would your work self get? If you’re working at a startup with a bunch of free snacks in the kitchen, you’re probably keeping it PG-13; you can joke about farts and your love life and everyone’s cool with it. But if you’re teaching eighth-grade math, that’s probably not the case. (Though a fart joke would still land, tbh.) Whatever your at-work rating is, make sure your social media follows suit. You can—and definitely should—still weigh in on all the topics you love; just bear in mind that some company or institution pays you to associate with their brand. Your end of that deal is, quite simply, not sucking.
Remember that one teacher who inexplicably loved the Eagles or that co-worker who had an infallible crush on the Rock? People will love you for sharing personal details like that, and it provides plenty of built-in small talk for the elevator—just remember your rating before hitting “post.”
…But act natural
That said, there’s nothing worse than someone who becomes an alien from outer space after applying for a job (or getting one). If your normal state of affairs is, “i love the seahawks!!!!!!” and your posts suddenly become, “Say, gang, any tips for going vegan?” people might call bullshit. More importantly, you’re probably going to feel extremely lame posting them.
Being professional doesn’t mean you have to drown your own voice; it just means being slightly more considerate and aware than you’re probably used to. It’s okay! You’re still you. And I like you.
Keep some spaces for yourself
Don’t feel pressure to friend or follow co-workers on every single app. It’s fine to make one account your designated blandness graveyard (for professional engagement) and then keep others private for the LOLs. Maybe your Facebook or your unlocked Twitter is for straightforward posts about Kickstarter gadgets and movie trailers, but you keep your less-searchable platforms, like Snapchat or Peach, friends-only. That way you can dick around with the goofy Totino’s Pizza Roll filter in peace and still like your cubemate’s 350-photo album of canyon hike pics.
Pick your battles
Yes, it’s fun to play with trending topics and weigh in on the newest nude celebrity Instagram, but unless you’re explicitly working in social media or as a comedian, you’ve entered a phase of your life where you need to take a second to ruminate before dropping experimental comedy on an audience of your peers. I’m not saying you need to replace every #DickSoThick with a #MondayMotivation if that’s not your speed, but it’s probably worth bearing in mind how you’d feel if you encountered Hallie from accounting’s #MoviesAboutMyVagina joke in the wild. Sort of weird, right? It goes both ways.
Also, trends and live news have a tendency to evolve, so bear that in mind before firing off a tweet about how much you’re looking forward to Woody Allen’s new movie.
Christine Friar is a writer from Brooklyn.
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