Learn to Walk the Fine Line between Personal Branding and Oversharing

Key Takeaways

  1. As an up-and-comer, your personal brand is critical asset – but oversharing on social media can easily undermine it.
  2. Learn from examples of people who lost their jobs, relationships, and more due to sharing too much (or unfavorable) personal info online.
  3. Uncover the psychological (and external) factors that can seduce us to overshare on social media.
  4. Discover practical strategies for maintaining a healthy online presence and protecting your fragile reputation.
  5. Find out why stopping this habit is the necessary first step of every up-and-comer to build a winning personal brand.

There’s this guy, let’s call him “Mike”, who I “know” a thing or two about: he proposed to his wife on a beach, he likes neon sunglasses for partying, his department’s annual budget and every meal he ever had. How come? We’re “friends” on a well-known social network, and he keeps his “friends” (I never met him) up to date. For example, he posted a photo of his work desk last week with his monitor in the background with “PowerPoint” open showing a chart of his department’s (confidential) budget planning for 2023.

Why am I telling you this? As a tale of caution: As an achiever, personal branding should be among your core skills. Oversharing – i.e., too much or the wrong type of information – on social media is the surest and easiest way to undermine that. Don’t be like “Mike”.

The Risks of Oversharing on Social Media for Up-and-comers

Mike is no exception though, unfortunately. Nowadays, most people share very private info on social networks like Insta, LinkedIn, Facebook etc. Ironically, everyone warns children against revealing too much about themselves towards total strangers on the internet, because it could be risky. Yet many adults seem not to realize this applies to them just as much as to children..

In the “real world”, people also don’t freely give strangers private info like their address or party photos, right? For example, you would not tell your boss you skive work, because you enjoy the sun and beach so much. Yet people post holiday pictures on Facebook, while handing in a sick note at work – with their boss in their friends list. Bravo.

Also, it’s well-known that employers or business partner do their due diligence on your online presence (Google, LinkedIn etc.) (“KYC”). What will they find? Hopefully, info that is consistent with your carefully crafted personal brand and handed-in application. Or is it a TikTok with 10M+ views of you emptying a jug of sangria with a hose?

There are countless cases of people who lost their job, relationships and more due to sharing the wrong info online – you might even know someone. Not to mention the various other risks, such as identity thieves who abuse your private data to make fake profiles and trick your friends or sell your data without your consent.

We’re all just erring humans, and I’m not “more papal than the pope”, but there’s a wide spectrum between these extremes. Nobody expects you or your image to be impeccable: Edges here and there accentuate your uniqueness. Just don’t “jump the shark”. Remember, developing your personal brand is a lengthy process; disfiguring it, however, is a breeze; re-building it is a mammoth task as the internet hardly forgets anything.

Why Do We Overshare on Social Media?

It seems the most basic principle of human interaction – i.e., sharing private info requires a corresponding level of trust – is negated when we turn on our digital devices. Let’s explore the factors that drive such shortsighted behaviors on social media. Overall, it’s a mix of external and internal factors that, in sum, just make it too easy and sweet to fall into the trap of oversharing:

Communication requires information sharing: It sounds trivial, but it’s difficult to communicate with anyone, if you don’t know anything about them. Thus, the revelation of personal information is the basic requirement for any social network to exist – especially those that connect a lot of strangers. So social media platforms must facilitate information sharing, and we must reveal – at least a bit – about ourselves to use them.

Social media platforms thrive when people overshare: The more people interact on a platform the better platforms do economically. There are very few things that drive website traffic like good old drama or some sneaky insights into other people’s lives (“humans gonna human”). Often the most absurd content wins the spotlight.

People crave happiness hormones: As social creatures, we’re naturally wired to seek AAA, i.e., attention, admiration, and approval. This triggers our reward system, and like Skinner taught us: We do more of what rewards us. So, with those waves of feedback which the social media platforms channel to the most “captivating content”, people are seduced to systematically trade their privacy for short-term satisfaction.

Strategies to Protect Your Personal Brand Online

Luckily, it’s not a “lost cause”. Let’s explore 3 concrete strategies how we can curb our natural proclivity for oversharing and thus protect our personal brands better:

Tip #1: Start with an inventory of your current online presence.

Check all your (old) social media profiles, i.e., the profile info as well as your history of posts and media uploads. What is visible to which user groups? Does your “content” (still) reflect your values and beliefs and your overall personal brand? Are there possibly any “legacy posts” lurking at the bottom of your pinboard which might even damage your reputation now? If so, delete them. If in doubt, better err on the side of caution…

While you’re at it, also optimize your privacy settings for all those social media profiles to make sure that only the people can see your content who you want to see it.

Tip #2: Think long-term (or at least use this simple “litmus test”).

We talked about short-term factors that lead to oversharing. Thus, one antidote is factoring long-term considerations into your decision-making, e.g., with questions like “Will the content I post today still be consistent with (or even damaging) my personal brand in ten, five or one year?”. This lowers the risk that your next “online presence inventory” yields unwelcome surprises.

One practical rule-of-thumb when all this “long-term thinking” gets too much is this simple guiding question (inspired by Warren Buffet’s “newspaper test”): “Would I feel comfortable revealing this message about myself to the readers in a real room? If the answer isn’t a clear “Yes!”, better don’t hit “send”.

Tip #3: Always mind the context (and its erratic nature).

Every social media platform has its own purpose and “unwritten rules”. Make sure your content always fits that context, e.g., better post that “romantic sunset” on Instagram instead of LinkedIn: “Professional folks” don’t want to see it. They might even assume you can’t communicate geared to your target audiences which is a crucial professional skill.

Thus, those “harmless” posts of yours can, in fact, harm your brand, career and upward journey. Remember that “cancel culture” is “a thing” and dynamic: Look at celebrities who get “roasted” now for what they tweeted ten years ago. The “winds of popular opinions” (and other “contexts”) change often.

Be Mindful of Your Digital Traces

The main takeaway from this article should be clear: We need to be conscious of the real implications of our virtual behavior for our self-actualization journey. Fortunately, there are “simple” strategies and techniques (like the “newspaper test”) that help us mitigate the risks of oversharing.

The saying “if you’re in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging” applies to this article and its role in this blog. It teaches you to stop doing what erodes your personal brand as a necessary first step. Only on that fundament, any efforts to build a winning brand can come to fruition. That, however, is its own topic for another article – so stay tuned!

As always, I’m looking forward to reading your feedback and want to encourage you to learn from each other, so please feel free to drop a line in the comment section.

Cheers, John.

Recommended Resources for the Go-Getters

Here are some resources for the hungry ones to dive deeper into today’s topics:

  • “The Social Dilemma”: This edutaining and thought-provoking documentary explores the deep impact of social media platforms on all areas of our lives. It dives into the psychological mechanisms of how social media platforms work and tempt us to overshare there.
  • “Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World” by Cal Newport: This is THE book when it comes to decluttering your “digital life”. It teaches us a valuable lesson about managing our “online presence”: less IS more.
  • “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business” by Charles Duhigg: This book delves into the psychology of habit formation. By understanding this process and applying the actionable tips you can make sure “oversharing on social media” is none of yours.
  • “Disconnect” by Henry Rubin: This psychological drama, starring Jason Bateman (one of my favorite actors), follows the seemingly unrelated stories of several characters which suddenly become intertwined by the profound impact of modern communications tech – which (literally and figuratively) connects or disconnects us: a cautionary tale for us to mind our online footprint.
  • “Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What’s Right and What to Do About It” by Max H. Bazerman and Ann E. Tenbrunsel: This book dives into the psychological process of decision-making and shows how our natural biases lead us to short-sighted behaviors like oversharing, and offers strategies for healthier behavior – both offline and online.

Share your thoughts