John Lydon mosaic by Ed Chapman. Photo: dullhunk (Creative Commons license)

John Lydon mosaic by Ed Chapman. Photo: dullhunk (Creative Commons license)

“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”   – Ecclesiastes 1:2b (NKJV)

Anyone who’s using social media and has tried to talk with someone who’s not using it about why you use it has undoubtedly encountered the perception that social media is an exercise in narcissistic navel-gazing. And yes, to a small extent, they’re right — Twitter and Facebook and Friendfeed and YouTube are populated by people sharing the minutae of their lives — sometimes in earnest, and sometimes, tongue-in-cheek.  [IMO that’s part of the beauty of it–check out this application that picks up all the Tweets with the words “love,” “hate” “think” “feel” and “believe” in them and then tell me you don’t agree].

What I often sense behind the “social media is vanity” objection is that the person objecting understands that the walls between one’s “public” and “private” image have been torn down. And rather than trying to reconstruct those barriers, people have decided to go out and play in this in-between space.

Yep, that’s a little frightening — more so if you’re a prominent leader in your local community, in business, in the church, or in some other sphere. There’s the “public” you, and the “private” you, and you’ve worked hard to cultivate your public image. You want people to respect you, and venturing into social media feels a bit too much like that recurring nightmare of standing in front of the crowd to deliver a big presentation or sermon, and suddenly realizing you forgot to get dressed that morning.

Social media experts are up on this, and they’re ready to help. Do a Google search on the words “build personal brand” and you’ll get lots of good links. While the idea of building a personal brand is not new, there are plenty of people with excellent (and free) advice on how to do this in the dawning age of the public/private sphere.

If I could choose one bit of advice, though, it would be this: Just be yourself. Don’t become paralyzed by the fear that you might accidentally reveal a political preference, or a detail or habit or like or dislike that will suddenly cause your carefully cultivated image to crumble. If you allow fear to be the litmus test for every Facebook status update, blog post, or Tweet, you’re doomed from the start. All you’ll be doing is building a “personal bland” — a vanilla version of yourself that stands out even more in the colorful realm of social media.

This doesn’t mean you should let it all hang out, of course. Use your best judgment, know that you’ll make mistakes, and learn from them. The fact that your athlete’s foot is acting up may be TMI, but people won’t be shocked if you tell them you hate folding laundry, or that you have a favorite TV show. Posting your favorite ice cream flavor might elicit some “me too’s” from the crowd, and (I promise) it won’t damage your credibility.

As long as it’s not vanilla.