Why Some People Have No Boundaries Online

By Adam Grant

September 12, 2013

Many people are often shocked by what others post online. Sometime this year, you’ve probably marveled at an offensive Tweet, a debaucherous Facebook picture, an embarrassing YouTube clip, or an unprofessional comment on LinkedIn from someone you know. Why is it that some people seem to have no filter on social media, yet others are more selective and private? What should your strategy be?

There are two key factors that drive a person’s social media choices, according to new work by researchers Ariane Ollier-Malaterre, Nancy Rothbard and Justin Berg. One is boundary preferences: Are you an integrator or segmentor? If you’re an integrator, you like to build bridges between your professional and personal lives. Integrators strive to blend their jobs with their lives outside work—they’re eager to talk about their kids at work, don’t mind bringing their work home, and are happy to share the same information with colleagues as family and friends.

If you’re a segmentor, you like to keep your professional and personal lives separate. Segmentors create mental fences between their jobs and other aspects of their lives. On social media this might mean using privacy controls, making your profile unsearchable or segmenting your network by using LinkedIn for professional contacts and Facebook for personal contacts.

The other factor is how you want to be seen by others: Are you aiming to impress or express? Impressers see social media as a vehicle for looking good—they want to build a positive reputation and attract a strong base of followers. The researchers say impressers aim to “disclose information that is flattering (e.g. achievements, good picture), glamorous (e.g. travel observations and pictures) or makes one look smart (e.g. interesting news articles).” They also avoid controversial posts and carefully control and monitor photos, tags and comments.

For expressers, social media isn’t about winning others over; it’s an opportunity to be seen accurately by others. This means being more open online: sharing vulnerabilities, disclosing unpopular opinions, writing about stressful experiences or posting photos that might not appeal to everyone.

When you combine boundary preferences and image motives, you can gain insight into the strategies that you select and how much other people will like and respect you. Integrators with a strong motivation to express don’t filter their content or their audiences. This open strategy is the least time-consuming and the most authentic, but it could sacrifice respect and likeability. People develop a reputation for revealing too much information and sharing inappropriate information, and it’s probably more common than ever before. As I noted recently, evidence suggests that compared to other generations, millennials seem to care more about self-expression than social approval.

People who want to express themselves are able to maintain respect by segmenting their audiences. By keeping LinkedIn and Facebook networks separate, for example, segmentors can still reveal their true identities and experiences to their friends and families without alienating or offending their colleagues. But this approach still poses some challenges in terms of likeability. Recent studies show “41 percent of Facebook users think it is irresponsible to ignore a friend request from a co-worker” and “younger employees are connected on Facebook to an average of 16 co-workers,” the researchers say. Segmentors who strive to self-express have to explain to colleagues why they won’t accept their friend requests on Facebook, and sometimes leave them wondering what’s being hidden in that private world.

The researchers make a compelling case that keeping an eye on your image usually earns you greater respect and liking. By segmenting what you share with different audiences you create online relationships that “mirror the tailored nature of offline relationships,” they write. The challenge is that it involves a lot more work. Few people have the time and energy to create and maintain separate lists of contacts for sharing different types of information, and they evolve these lists as relationships change. And as hard as you try, sometimes it’s out of your control when friends cross your boundaries.

As more of an integrator, I have a decent number of professional contacts in my Facebook network. My wife is a segmentor—to the point that she cringes at the mere mention of her existence in social media and will probably even object to this one. In our experience, segmentation is the dominant preference in relationships: Blurring boundaries is far more bothersome to a segmentor than building fences is to an integrator. In fact, Rothbard and her colleagues conducted a study showing that segmentors are less satisfied and committed when their employers offer onsite childcare. Even when it doesn’t affect them directly, the mere presence of other people’s family lives in their workplaces punches holes in their mental fences.

Since many people are segmentors, being liked and respected probably requires some selectivity about what they share and with whom. And there’s a way to be selective without spending inordinate amount of time and energy managing different networks and lists. It’s called conversation. So I’d like to propose a rule: When in doubt, share it offline.

(Image via Minerva Studio/Shutterstock.com)

By Adam Grant

September 12, 2013