The nature of social communications has been changing at a rapid pace due to widespread use of online social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter. Traditionally private conversations have become public and this blurring between private and public has resulted in a new social construct, e-professionalism, or the impact of online behavior on one’s professionalism.
I am one of the 350 million Facebook users. Facebook has enabled me to maintain and strengthen relationships with friends and family, re-connect with friends from my youth, and network with music therapists around the globe. Although I am not a frequent contributor to Facebook, I regularly check the status of those I “friended” and enjoy reading updates on their personal lives. I must admit that I don’t particularly care for trivial facts such as what TV shows a friend is watching, how much a colleague is dreading having to cook dinner, or how far that someone (who I friended for whatever reason I can’t remember) walked their dog today. Nevertheless, I have been very intrigued by what people post and how their posts, and their friends’ reactions to their posts, create an impression of who they are in their private life. Walther and colleagues (2008) found that comments made by one’s Facebook friends impacted the profile owner’s rating of social attractiveness and credibility. Negative postings (for example posts related to undesirable behaviors such as excessive drinking) decreased the profile owner’s rating of social attractiveness whereas positive posts alluding to the pro-social behavior of the profile owner resulted in more favorable ratings. These findings suggest that Facebook users use information provided by sources other than the profile owner herself when forming impressions.
I have witnessed on many occasions people sharing with others an impression they formed about an individual solely based on that person’s Facebook posts. I have heard colleagues form opinions about other music therapists because of the online behavior they witnessed. Although participation in sites such as Facebook and My Space are primarily for personal and entertainment purposes, others may use that information to make judgments of a professional nature. One’s professional image can certainly be compromised by posting of pictures, sharing details of one’s personal life, posting comments and opinions, and joining controversial online groups. But one’s posts do not need to express extreme opinions or include embarrassing personal details for a negative impression to form. References to one’s organization skills (or lack thereof), negative comments about one’s boss or colleagues, indications of low frustration tolerance in working with clients, etc. are all factors that contribute to the formation of an online impression that can have far-reaching implications.
For example, there is a growing trend to use internet search engines and social networking sites to screen job applicants and to form judgment of character. Although there is an ongoing debate as to whether such practices are considered an invasion of privacy on the part of the employer, the reality is that, within our small world of music therapy, many music therapy professionals and students have friended a relatively large potential market of future employers. A Facebook user “friends” on average 130 people. How many of your Facebook friends could potentially become a future employer, a supervisor, a colleague you may want to collaborate with, a professor, etc? And furthermore, be aware that you are not only connected to those on your friends list, but are susceptible to thousands of people viewing your information. One of my former students’ Facebook posts was quite disconcerting: she (and/or her friends) freely posted about her nightlife, her drinking habits, and her chronic lack of organization skills. I debated for a while whether I should inform her about the potential devastating effects her online persona could have on her professionalism as perceived by others. I felt hesitant because I didn’t want to engage in policing online behaviors of former students. However, I sensed that she was completely oblivious to the potential damage she was causing. When I finally approached her about her online behavior, she replied that she had never made the association between her posts and future employment because she thought this information was only visible to her "friends." When I suggested she review the list of people she friended (over 400 people!) and write down the names of music therapists who had the potential of being future employers, she was shocked at the result. Moreover, she admitted to have forgotten who she had friended over the years. Of course, many of us do not posts comments/pictures/opinions that could compromise our e-professionalism but nevertheless, I believe we have all formed opinions/impressions of others by what they post, how frequently they post, etc.
Besides the impression our online behavior may give to colleagues and employers, I also wonder about the disclosure it provides to our clients. Although we do not “friend” clients, it is very easy for them to search social networking sites and access basic information about their therapist without friending them. As I was writing this column, I searched Facebook for the term (music therapy) and the profiles of hundreds of music therapists appeared. While some had strict privacy settings, for many I could readily access demographic details, the list of people they friended, their political views, their religious views, online groups they joined, and so on. A subsequent simple Google search with the terms (therapist AND Facebook) instantly brought me to blogs by clients about online searching for personal information of their therapist.
One blogger wrote:
I feel bad or weird about searching Facebook and finding not my therapist but his children. I'm closer in age to his young adult children than to my therapist himself. One of his children has a less private setting, and so I can read details about family events, see family pictures, and much more. I am too embarrassed to bring up in therapy that I looked my therapist up online, let alone that I know a lot of details about his children’s lives.
Another blogger responded:
You've done nothing wrong. It's quite common and natural to feel curiosity about our therapists. He may indeed react as if this is a boundary crossing, but in my opinion, that would be naive of him. You're right that he may not realize how much someone can see about him even though his profile is private.
How much are we aware of this potential of privacy invasion by our clients as we post? Do we feel protected because of the privacy setting options Facebook provides? Facebook’s privacy settings, by the way, have been called into question in recent months and it is quite unclear what settings enable protections and which do not. What is the impact of clients learning information about us that we would choose not to disclose in a session?
Although the Facebook mission statement seems simple: "to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected,” what has been the impact of that increasingly open and connected world on our sense of privacy and professionalism as therapists? More and more professional programs now offer workshops and guidelines to their students about the importance of e-professionalism. I would be interested to learn if music therapy training programs are doing the same.
Now, I hope that my pondering about these issues in this column won’t result in a large number of posts on my Facebook wall in the weeks to come (hint…). Instead, it would be great to begin a dialogue about these issues on the Voice’s discussion forum for all to see.
With the start of 2010, I wish you a lot of happy friending and productive networking!
Walther, J. B., Van Der Heide, B., Kim, S., Westerman, D., & Tong, S. T. (2008). The role of friends’ appearance and behavior on evaluations of individuals on facebook: Are we known by the company we keep? Human Communication Research, 34, 28-49.
Bradt, Joke (2010). E-Professionalism. Voices: A World Forum for Music Therapy. Retrieved May 16, 2013, from http://testvoices.uib.no/?q=colbradt250110