Social Networking’s Dark Side
Like dieters who knows there's damage being done but simply can't resist, those of us who post personal information on social networking sites can't seem to heed the wise old warning: "A moment on the lips, forever on the hips."
Don't believe that a momentary truth has lasting consequences? Just ask bong smoker and ex-Kellogg's shill Michael Phelps. He'll tell you that moral, social or legal transgressions can come back to haunt you. A lapse in judgment, preserved in Internet amber, can result in everything from public humiliation to the loss of a potential college admissions slot to having your resume end up in the "No" pile.
What's worse, those who evaluate us based on our online presence may do so without us ever knowing that a flamboyant photo or an outrageous blog posting was the deciding factor.
In a country where the majority of states offer no employment protection based on sexual orientation, being out, loud and proud online can be the deciding factor in losing a job - or never scoring that coveted interview.
Call it the dark side of the Internet revolution.
"All of the information that Affirmative Action was supposed to make irrelevant or inconsequential to making decisions has now become easily obtainable through a quick online search." says research psychologist Larry Rosen (a professor of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills - and author of "Me, MySpace & I: Parenting the Net Generation").
Putting Your Best Face(book) Forward
In 2003, when Facebook was still a closed network just for college students, Yianni Garcia (his website), was one of the first 50,000 students to establish a presence on Facebook. Today, the Social media strategist notes that "I’m twenty-three, and social networks have been a part of my life since I can remember." Despite his longstanding techno savvy, Garcia recalls the mad dash he made to take down "500 photos of me at 300 parties" upon graduating from college.
"When Facebook started catching on, I didn’t think this was something I was going to have to censor for my friends, family, school administrators, and future employers. It was like a digital playground."
After reading a 2007 article in his alma matter’s Daily Free Press (about a girl getting in Dutch for a Facebook photo of her with a joint), "I started thinking I need to clean up my Facebook profile, because it may be exposed to more people than my peers."
Employers & Admissions Officers Are Looking
Beautifully illustrating the surreal process by which information posted by one is soon disseminated by many, a recent Yahoo tech article referenced a report by Reuters. No slouches when it comes to depending upon the kindness of other news sources, that Reuters report quoted a study which revealed that one out of every five employers use the web to glean information on job applicants.
The Yahoo article noted that "About one third of the applicants screened online were dropped from contention after inappropriate content was found on their profile. Yikes." Yikes, indeed!
Matthew Fraser, PhD, is a Senior Research Fellow at the European business school INSEAD and co-author of the book "Throwing Sheep in the Boardroom: How Online Social Networking will Transform Your Life, Work and World."
"In the old days, it was fairly simple." observes Fraser. "You sent in your resume, they drew up a short list, you went on an interview, then they called up people on your reference list. It was based on what you presented."
That sounds quaint compared to the tactics of 2009’s brave new world. "Today, what you present to a potential employer is taken into consideration, but it’s widely known that Human Resource departments and recruiters are mining social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace and using Google to find out as much as they can about your past life, embarrassing or shameful facts, criminal convictions, outrageous behaviors, or even whether you are homosexual."
Upper photo: Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg
Lower photo: Yianni Garcia
Skeletons in your Cybercloset
But what happens when employers realize that most of us have skeletons buried not too deep in the electronic closet that might render the entire world unemployable?
"We’re going to go through a period of time where people are going to have to loosen their standards a tad," Rosen believes, "by recognizing that some online postings are just for fun and don’t’ necessarily reflect any deep meaning about the person."
Losing a job opportunity is bad enough - but surreptitious online research is, more and more, becoming a deciding factor as to who gets into college in order to earn a degree which makes you eligible to apply for that a job.
"Kids are applying to universities and guess what?" asks Fraser, "Although they don’t admit it, Admission Officers are mining Facebook and MySpace." In some cases, incriminating information can take them out of the running for a coveted slot in the freshman class - and in other cases, it can get you kicked out of the school once you’ve made it in. Fraser points to a recent case at Oxford (England), where "somebody took photos of hazing rituals and posted them on Facebook. Administrators looked at the photos and expelled those guilty of the hazing."
While this case may show a constructive use of Facebook, Oxford’s use of cruising Facebook to identify students committing more minor infractions of school rules and punishing them with fines was criticized by students as an invasion of their privacy. Oxford revealed two years ago that university officials were routinely cruising Facebook to locate students committing infractions.
"The students are livid that their online world is being gatecrashed," reported the London Times Online in July 2007. "Martin McCluskey, president of Oxford University Student Union, said: ’While we do not condone unruly, violent or disorderly behaviour, we believe that the university’s use of private photos from the Facebook site in disciplinary procedures is disgraceful.’"
Or take the case of Katherine Evans, who last year was attending her last year in high school in a Miami suburb. Unhappy with her English teacher she, according to a report in the New York Times on February 7, vented her frustrations on her Facebook page. Two months later she "was called into the principal’s office and was told she was being suspended for "cyberbullying," a blemish on her record that she said she feared could keep her from getting into graduate schools or landing her dream job." Now a freshman at a Florida university, she is suing her high school to have the suspension removed from her record.
In other cases, fresh-out-of-school blabbermouth bloggers have screwed themselves out of jobs.
Sue Barnes, professor of communication and associate director of the Lab for Social Computing at Rochester Institute of Technology, recalls how the faculty highly recommended a student for a job: "The employer went on the net, found some humorous stuff that "didn’t seem like satire to the employer - who came back to the faculty and said ’Who is this guy, and why are you recommending him to us?’ We went back to the student and told him that other people didn’t find it funny."
Rosen confirms that even something as subjective as humor can tip the scales when it comes to college admissions - which are every bit as competitive as a job search during a tanking economy: "There were 25,000 applications to Yale, and they took 2,500 people. They all had 5.0 grade averages and high SATs, so how do you make those decisions? For people who are on the edge, they go searching to see if there’s anything hidden or bad that they can use to eliminate people."
Sad but true, one of those elimination factors can be sexual orientation. Fraser cites the example of Royal protection officer Inspector Chris Dreyfus, who was in charge of the protection unit for the royal family.
Fraser recalls: "He applied for a promotion to run a big police force in the north of England, went through the interviews with flying colors, and was offered the job."
Then, somebody started going through his past by way of the Internet, and found postings on his Facebook page that "were very indicative of what would be considered a flamboyantly gay life; photographs and references to, I believe, Vaseline - and he was in leather."
The police force withdrew the job offer. The tabloids had a field day, and the courts were unmoved by the legal argument that "his online profile had nothing to do with his professional qualifications for the job. He was refused the promotion because of the way he displayed his personal life on Facebook."
Cleaning it Up, and Taking it Down
For those determined to rehabilitate their online image, damage control is the best they can hope for - as opposed to a total erasure of content. Fraser notes: "You don’t own the content on your Facebook or MySpace page."
Although you can take down your own revealing and incriminating Facebook photos, that doesn’t eliminate the risk of somebody seeing it via those who’ve tagged the photos, warns Garcia. "The photo will still be in their profile or album - even though Facebook knows not to let a person tag it again."
Garcia recommends "deleting comments friends put on your wall that are not appropriate - although you still run the risk of having someone see it before you get a chance to take it down." Another important step is to "set your profiles to ’private," so when somebody Googles your name and your Facebook profile pops up, they don’t have access to it unless they are one of your designated friends."
As for the incriminating results of that dreaded Google search, Fraser recommends "reputation defender businesses." Companies like reputationdefender.com will, for an often extravagant fee, "create your online persona, build your online profile, and make sure that the first ten or fifteen items that show up in a Google search are positive."
That can be particularly valuable to LGBTs who are not quite all the way out of the closet - or whose sexual proclivities don’t exactly compliment their conservative jobs.
Fraser: "Say you are a crossdresser, widely known in the gay comm. - but you happen to be a lawyer. A reputation defender firm will make sure the first page or two of Google items are very standard items about your life as a lawyer; all the stuff about your crossdressing life will be buried deep, deep into the search."
Armen Berjikly is founder of Experience Project, the world’s largest online forum for anonymously sharing any kind of life experience. Their "I am Gay" group has over 400 members who share their life experiences and challenges with one another. Berjikly describes it as "a place where people can open up and be real without the fear of privacy issues."
"If you’re looking to share inflammatory or sensitive content, I’d highly recommend using a support network as opposed to MySpace or Facebook. Those sites are great tools to keep in touch with your acquaintances, but when it comes to connecting with people who share an experience or challenge, the public nature of those sites makes them poor choices."
Whether it’s a posting on Facebook, a blog rant or a seemingly innocent comment anywhere on the web, Barnes puts it most succinctly, and perhaps best: "Don’t put anything on the Internet that you wouldn’t put on a post card sent to your grandmother."
Photo: Royal protection officer Inspector Chris Dreyfus, who claims his being out on his Facebook page led him to be passed over for a new job.