October 23, 2012

When is Too Much Information Really TMI?

There is some truth to the often-repeated complaint of those looking for the best excuse against using social media: “I don’t care what you had for breakfast this morning.” Certainly, there are those who seemingly maintain accounts for the sole purpose of bogging down your streams with each and every mundane detail of their lives. The other end of the spectrum, of course, is made up of the more salacious details like party pictures from office or networking events; angry diatribes and flame wars; or associates airing their law firm dirty laundry. In between these extremes are the useful or entertaining tidbits of information that social media can magically deliver.

Why do we see these unfortunate snippets of information? In part because we are all human. All of us that actively use the Internet have likely made a social media misstep somewhere along the line. But there is something else happening here: The boomers tend to engage in social media in ways fundamentally different than those in the various letter generations do.

Different in Kind

Younger users tend to be flippant on social media; and because there is no sarcasm font yet developed, older users just don’t get it. Older users tend to use a far more serious tone in their comments. The business uses of social media are more readily ascertainable for younger users, and they seem to have an innate sense of how to use these platforms to make a soft sell. Older users are more direct, less nuanced and more often overtly salesy. Older users often misunderstand the nature of personal profiles versus business pages.

The simplest explanation for these departure points, and others, is that the younger group grew up immersed in social media and the older group did not. There is no surer method of indoctrination than application at youth. So it is that younger users understand the flow of digital social conversations; and they realize the essential permanence of online information—even though they sometimes willfully ignore this fact. They can also better conceptualize the entwined nature and reach of the Web. There is an ease of interaction manifest in their social networking that is nowhere present in the online machinations of older users.

Sense and Sensibility

We need to understand that different generations are fundamentally different when it comes to sharing information online. However, regardless of whether you are a younger or older user of social media, here are nine useful rules of interaction that will keep you out of trouble:

  • Never post pictures from your wild/drunken/debauched weekend. 
  • Never post personal relationship drama. 
  • Don’t be passive-aggressive. 
  • Don’t post other people’s personal news/events. 
  • Allow a cooling-off period before posting in anger; chances are you won’t post at all.
  • Don’t be overtly braggy; or, definitely, don’t do it consistently. 
  • Think very hard before posting pictures of your children online or consider restricting the persons who can see them. 
  • Unless you want to get blocked or ignored, don’t make frequent status updates concerning mundane daily events.
  • Don’t post anything derogatory about your job or your boss.

So what does this all mean to the legal profession?

Many attorneys feel hamstrung respecting their use of social media, given the myriad of ethical rules they are required to follow. The main reasons for this is a cultural lag with the authorities that are charged with creating the rules we are all to follow. Many of the individuals responsible for directing or creating these rules do not have the technology background or experience to understand and keep up with the nuances of dealing with social media. The net result is a complete absence of regulation, regulation that occurs in fits and starts, or regulation by making blanket pronouncements that attorneys should, essentially, analogize the online situation to an appropriately similar offline situation–sometimes this works well and sometimes it just doesn’t apply or leads to crazy results.  

As you can see, TMI is really TMI, regardless of what generation you are from. Keep that in mind next time you are thinking about posting something personal.