personality (Photo credit: hang_in_there)

One of the real tricks of being successful with social networking is achieving a balance of content (like links, blog posts, niche relevant observations, etc) and what I like to think of as personality.

Your social networking personality could be a topic for a whole other blog post but, in short, it’s those little things you share that reveal who you really are that win people over from followers to fans. It’s what helps people to really feel like they know you, even if you’ve never actually spoken to them one on one. It’s what makes someone say, “Oh, my friend Hillary has a book out right now, I should buy it!” when I don’t actually know you at all. 

Clearly, it’s a very powerful thing. I would argue it’s one of the most useful tools you’ve got to distinguish yourself online since, after all, there’s only one you.

But here’s the tricky part about being yourself… none of us are perfect. Even if we’re reasonably good people and generally follow the internet rule of “Don’t be a dick,” all of us have opinions that could well tick off half or more of our audience. You want to be yourself but you don’t want to ostracize your fans, right?

Let’s take politics (Please! ;-)) because it’s an election year and everyone is crazed right now. Now, obviously, if you’re a political blogger or if your business is built around a certain political stance, then being vocal about your opinions is exactly what your fans want. But, for most of us, our businesses have nothing whatsoever to do with our personal views. Knowing my stance on a certain issue could win your love, sure, assuming I agree with you but if I think the opposite? You could turn from a supporter to hater in a flash.

It creates an awkward situation. Because if you’re truly yourself, you’d be able to express your opinions whenever you want, right? It seems wrong to censor yourself if “the real you” is one of your biggest social networking assets. How can you express your true personality if you have to watch what you say?

On the flip side, is it professional for me to share something that I know will anger a significant portion of my audience? To clarify, we’re talking about this from a business perspective only. As a normal human, you may want to try to shift perspectives or court controversy to shed light on a certain issue that’s dear to you and I am all for that. I wildly exercise my freedom of speech in my personal life, never you fear. But a business just wants the maximum number of quality customers so intentionally posting something that will cause you to lose customers may not always be the best idea. In other words, Hillary the Brand doesn’t have the same opinion luxuries that Hillary the Normal Offline Person does.

Of course, that controversial thing you said might lose you the customer who disagrees… but gain you several brand new customers who agree with you. And what if you could find a way to express your opinion without ticking off anyone?

See what I mean about this being tricky?

Personally, I try very hard to steer away from incendiary topics online though I have my own person exceptions (for instance: I will occasionally comment on human rights issues since, to me, those have no place in politics in the first place and if someone is against basic human rights… I don’t want them as a follower anyway.) If I am absolutely dying to express an opinion on something beyond that, the most I’ll usually do is retweet something someone else said that I agree with. A retweet gives you some distance from what is being said and lets you get away with a little bit more than you can speaking as yourself.

If you follow me across the web, you’ll notice I maybe make half a dozen controversial statements a year. If you know me in real life, you’re insanely impressed by this because I am VERY outspoken on a variety of topics one of which is politics. It’s not so much that I hide the real me online (I give it to eBay et al on this blog just as good as I give it to Washington around the dinner table) but I do have opinions that I know for a fact clash with some of my audience so I usually just figure it’s better to not go there.

But what do you think? Would you rather be able to truly be yourself online, warts and all, and let the customers fall as they may? Or do you watch what you say, censoring yourself a little when it comes to controversy?