One of the most interesting facts detailed in the article is that “one in 10 admissions officers visits social networking sites to check students’ backgrounds.” I am surprised that the number is so low, and I wonder whether a number of those surveyed may have been reluctant to admit that they are checking student applicants’ backgrounds that way.
In any case, background-checking websites–blogs, Facebook, MySpace, YouTube–or any other Web content associated with you will only become more important and influential over time. Actually, the issue itself is fairly old. Mark Twain and President Harry Truman both asserted that you should never say or do anything that you wouldn’t feel comfortable reading about on the front page of the newspaper. But in their time newspapers were strictly defined in a professional sense and reporters were hired professionals. Nowadays, citizen journalism has become a widespread phenomenon and everyone, it seems, especially of college age, is becoming a self-caster–or, to use the term I have suggested to replace producer/receiver, they have become interactors,* creating their own media content, often about themselves and their own activities.
As the College Central article points out, there are considerable blowback possibilities when you tell (and show) everybody online everything about your ideas, opinions, and actions. I spoke a few months ago to a large group of college-age political activists. Many of them were thinking about running for elected office one day. As I told them, everything you say or show online may come back to haunt you. The same is true for applications to college or jobs.
The ethical issues, both for the poster and the background checker, are many, but the phenomenon is real, so be careful what you post! Specifically…
Control Your Own Content!
Obviously, you want to follow the Twain/Truman advice about any OSIM page or posting that is under your name. Do you really need to show pictures of yourself doing something embarrassing?
While the warning seems obvious, the nuances are not so clear. If you absolutely must vent online about your coworkers or fellow students, do some research on how to create the most untraceable Web identity possible. Typical Web masquerade techniques have many holes in them. For example, blogging under a pseudonym does not necessarily give you cover. The fact is that it is not very hard to out someone either by a process of deduction–especially if they are referring to events on their campus–or with a little bit of Web-based sleuth work. In one case, I deduced the identity of an academic hotly politically blogging under a pseudonym who had registered his Web site under his own name and listing his mailing address. I sent him a private note promising him confidentiality but suggesting he mask his tracks more effectively. I myself was almost outed after two guest pseudonymous stints on a political blog: One commenter narrowed down my university from a reference I made even though I was not blogging about academia at all.
Also, remember that there is no such thing as a “complete delete” on the Web. Somewhere, somehow, your Web page has been saved or perhaps even printed out. This includes your boss, since what you do on a work computer is often legally ruled as their property and your employers have the right to monitor what sites you go to and even the content of your e-mails.
Photos are a whole other problem: yes, be careful what you post, but what about friends who take pictures of you and post them on their site?
Basic point: whatever you say or show online is forever–and there is a legal ramification to such a fact. Even if your comments are cryptic and pseudonymous, you are still bound by the same libel laws as anyone else. In a legal investigation or lawsuit a website hosting company will not protect your identity. Above all, controlling content also means controlling yourself; the old rule about not sending an e-mail in a fit of anger applies equally to a blog post. Much research on cognition and electronic communications shows that all of us are more likely to say things beyond the pale when confronted by a glowing screen rather than a person. Perhaps keep a picture of your mother next to your keyboard when you are blogging–or maybe your boss–as a reminder of the costs of going too far!
Further, learn the lesson from politics about the death of the private moment. Whether or not from former Senator George Allen’s “macaca” moment on now President Obama’s “bitter” comments, politicians are now realizing that everyone in any meeting (or party) is a potential journalistwith tools (cell phone or digital camera, computer, Web access and OSIM) to capture, post, and publicize what they see or hear you do and say. Act accordingly.
Finally, restricting viewing of your site only to friends is not a complete block to unwanted eyes: Do you know who your friends allow to view you? A college student with hundreds of online friends may be broadcasting his or her doings to their friends and so on–and then to a boss or admissions officer.
Follow-up: A big question is whether “online embarrassment” and “saving face” will mean different things in the future as the present-day online generation becomes the bosses and the admissions officers. In my study of online politics in campaign 2008, I noted that quite often posters and commenters on, for example, Barack Obama’s MySpace page would say or show something that was not exactly flattering to the candidate. But most people who would go to the page would understand the difference between an official campaign communication or position and the thoughts or lurid picture of a commenter. Maybe we will see some similar level of acceptance about embarrassing photos of college students online.
*See: David D. Perlmutter. “The Internet: Big Pictures and Interactors.” In Larry Gross, John Stuart Katz, & Jay Ruby (eds.), Image Ethics in the Digital Age, 2nd ed.. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004.
Originally posted January 20, 2009 at PolicyByBlog
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