Appearances matter - now, in the Age of the Internet, more than ever before. The ideas that people form about you based on an online search are of paramount importance. It is not a matter of vanity or of ego to think so, but simply reality: What an online search reveals about your person and your experience could make or break you, professionally as well as personally.
Consider that jobs these days are in shorter supply than many of us might like, and that when an employer posts a new position, he or she is often inundated with resumes. Employers do not always have time to look through each and every job application, so it is important for the employer to weed out all of the unserious or red-flag entries. The best way to do that is to conduct quick Google searches - and if entering your name as a search query brings up negative, unprofessional or embarrassing listings, you can bet that your resume will quickly get cut from the stack!
Social Media Matters
As such, professionals have learned, in recent years, to keep their online presence tasteful and scandal-free. A big part of this is maintaining a clean social media profile. The last thing you want is for a potential employer, co-worker or client to visit your Facebook page and find slovenly, drunk photos or embarrassing status updates.
But if it is important to maintain social media profiles that do not hinder, it is just as important to create social media profiles that actually, proactively help. Remember that social media profiles can be tools, and that settling for "neutral" is often not enough, especially when you could be using them to enhance your personal brand and to lend yourself a competitive edge.
The question is, how? Lists of what not to include on a social media site are a dime a dozen, but lists of what to include are much less common. Nevertheless, there are assets you can list on your social media profiles that will cause you to appear more desirable to employers, and more respectable among peers.
Social media profiles can be helpful in two ways - cultivating goodwill, and establishing authority. Both of these things can help you to appear as a more appealing job candidate or as a more respected member of your professional community. Both of them are simply matters of knowing what to include on your Facebook profile.
As far as goodwill, the goal is to establish yourself as someone who is well-rounded and dynamic, not just in the office but outside of it. When a potential employer is looking you up online, he or she assumes that you have a personal life - the question is, what do you do in your personal life? Facebook photos of kegs and six-packs probably will not help to cast you in a positive light, but information about charities to which you donate, or volunteer work you have done, can go a long way.
It can be as simple as heading to Facebook and clicking "like" on whatever cancer research groups or Habitat for Humanity-style non-profits at which you serve. Or, you can include a Volunteer Work section on LinkedIn. Most of the time, it is better to leave off political parties, but there may be some isolated cases in which these are acceptable (if you are applying for work with an organization known for strong social stances, for instance).
Your social media profiles can also help you to establish yourself as someone who is authoritative - that is, as someone who knows what you are doing within your field, and who has the respect of other members of your industry. Again, this can be accomplished simply by listing the right kinds of associations and involvements. It is important to note that those affiliations and involvements go well beyond your work history, however.
For example, do you belong to any professional organizations, or have a membership in any industry organization? If so, include these organizations on your Facebook page or LinkedIn profile, just as you would on your resume. The same goes for academic associations; even belonging to an alumni group reinforces that you are educated and that you take that seriously.
It is important to maintain a social media presence that you can manage; the last thing you want is an online footprint so big you do not know what it entails. This is one reason among many why it is recommended that you stick to a single Facebook profile, rather than having one for your personal life and one for your career. (Another reason: Doing this is a big violation of Facebook's user agreement!)
Remember that the things you post on social media sites have the potential to hurt you - but they also have the potential to help you. In all of your social interactions, then, choose wisely.