A recent article for which I was interviewed, “Saving Face on Facebook,”written by Sarah Skelnik, appeared in Career College Central.

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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    Original Reader Comments (30)

    The concept of “saving your face” has grown over the past couple of years. I feel like it is very common for people to delete certain information or change their names so that it does not show their full name. This is clearly an attempt to save your privacy, but as stated above, nothing is ever really deleted on the internet. I would like to think that after having Facebook for many years now, most people are smart enough to have censored their information, but I guess that isn’t the case. I have been warned by many professionals that it is very common for a business to search the name of a potential worker.
    Facebook is a great way to communicate and stay in touch with friends and family, but in this case, it can come back to haunt you. It seems to me that all social media has its ups and downs!
    January 26, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLMP316

    Saving face on facebook right now is something that is very scary as people graduate and start to interview for jobs. I think it is safe to bet that when facebook started none of the members would have thought that a potential employer might base their decision on a profile. That is why it is imperative to warn students at a much younger age. Kids are starting to utilize to the internet at a very young age and it is important that they realize everything they post may haunt them in their future.
    January 27, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterbuster

    Although I feel that everything on my Facebook is relatively harmless I have decided to delete Facebook because I am currently applying to graduate schools. I am disturbed by the fact that even with a high level of privacy rating admission councils may still have the ability to access Facebook and other social network sites. I know that our online activity will become more and more visible over the next few years but its disturbing to me that any pictures or comments I make on the web can be so easily traced and accessed. I feel vulnerable knowing that all of my information is so readily available regardless of my best efforts to keep my online life private.
    January 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDuke44

    Social media Web sites are used by almost everyone these days, of course that is everyone that has access to a computer and the internet. People seek social networking to have a meaningful and relevant experience. Often times if people have a bad experience with a social media site they discontinue the membership. I would hope that people take themselves seriously enough that they would not put anything disturbing, illegal or distasteful on these sites. If admissions directors are looking on these sites I do not feel bad for the people that show themselves binge drinking or doing something illegal and then do not get accepted to college, grad school or a certain job. A recent problem has been women putting up pictures of themselves breast feeding on facebook. This would be an interesting topic for discussion concerning ethics because I am not sure if I know the answer.
    January 28, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterte6506

    The Internet is not real; it’s a funnel of reality. Whenever I think of the Internet, the idea of harmoniously connecting everyone is not top-of-mind. No, when I think of the Internet, I think of persons’ real characters being distance from others’ real characters. The Internet leaves much room for misinterpretation of communication. Many connotations cannot be interpreted through through text, and we all know that the party wasn’t THAT much fun as the pictures show.

    Interactors on the Internet and people like admissions counselors must consider the context in which the content was generated. Unfortunately, the Internet is so efficient at providing content that context is often negated. They won’t know that you don’t get drunk every night…they’ll just see and remember the pictures when you were tanked. The role of matching content rests with the users.
    January 28, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterdude.hey

    I applaud employers and admissions officers looking at OSIMs for reference. They are taking advantage of our generation and being resourceful. We have moved from private diaries to public blogs. Seemingly, this is nothing but a call for attention. When I post a note on facebook that I hate the “game” that girls play, I’m looking for some sort of a response, or else I would have kept that to the inevitable venting that went on between me and my roommates. You cannot have a problem with people calling attention to your OSIM when that is what you are wanting from the beginning.
    January 28, 2009 | Unregistered Commentersunshine

    Social networking sites present a double edged sword. They can both help and hinder our career choices. For many of us planning to graduate and hopefully, hopefully getting jobs in public relations, advertising, newspaper, etc. we have to be especially careful about “saving our faces”. As we noted in class part of what won Obama the election was his ability to personalize his campaign through twitter. I think that if companies and employers are going to do background checks then there are ways to use Facebook to your advantage. It’s just not necessary to prove (via Facebook pictures) that you are the fastest beer-bonger in the Midwest.
    January 28, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermegs527

    I have never really thought too seriously about the ramifications of material on facebook effecting someone getting or not getting a job. After reading this blog, I do believe that it is important for everyone to realize, especially kids just starting to use the internet that material they post can be seen by millions and it is in fact important to be smart about what you talk about and post. I feel like the contents on my facebook page would not harm me in getting a job so I dont really take this too seriously. I do agree with megs527 that people can and should use facebook as an advantage in the job-hunting process.
    January 28, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterdaslonka

    I agree with Megs527 that social networking sites are a double-edged sword. For certain jobs, schools etc. the simple act of having a facebook page could prevent you from acceptance/admission. On the otherhand, many of us are interested in advertising and PR where it is almost essential to show that you have knowledge of social-networking. A blog or Facebook page is a great way to show this, if it is done tastefully, of course.

    I have heard a story about a recent college grad who went to an job interview. The interviewer asked the applicant if he would like to take the interviewer through his facebook page. For some of us, this could be the deal maker, and for others, a definite deal breaker.
    January 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterWMJ220

    This is an issue that has become increasingly prevalent the last few years. When people begin putting too much information on Myspace or Facebook it can be dangerous in many aspects. You can never know who is online looking for you, so it is best to be cautious about what you are displaying to the public. We should follow the advice of Twain and Truman by not posting information online we wouldn’t want seen by certain people. Employers among other groups of people are aware these social networking sites are a great utility to see a person’s personality outside of an interview, so of course they are going to look you up. if you are going to put your life online someone will inevitably find it.
    January 28, 2009 | Unregistered Commentersenior.09

    I agree with most everyone- you have to be careful of what you post. My dad is always looking at the Facebook and Myspace pages of prospective employees, and of his clients. This way, he can really see what he is dealing with. I find it funny that within the last year or two people have finally realized the importance of your online persona. This seems obvious, and I’m shocked that more businesses and schools don’t do it more often.

    But this shouldn’t be frowned upon. Facebook and Myspace are a great way to network and keep in touch with former classmates. Sites such as LinkedIn allow you to network professionally, in a much more appropriate setting. Either way, people shouldn’t be afraid to post what they want on their sites, but if you have to second guess yourself, it’s probably a bad idea.
    January 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDover

    Looking at saving face on facebook as an ethical dilemma, I think there are two things that people should ideally do:

    Employers and people looking at applicant’s facebooks should take into consideration the fact that we are all human. We were all young once, and no one is professional and serious all the time. Just because our generation has the technology to share our fun times, and strong opinons with each other does not mean we are less responsible, bigger party-animals, or more radical than any previous generations.

    And people with facebooks or other personal websites should know what it means when they put anything about themselves onto the internet. It’s the internet. Knowing that it will be available for literally anyone to see, means it is the individual’s choice to either keep their thoughts, photos and ideas to themselves, or stand by their websites, and say, “This is who I am, take it or leave it.”

    But idealistic ideas aside, it becomes a complete non-issue if everyone wakes up and understands that anything on the internet is, by simple definition, available for anyone else with the internet to see. It’s really simple. You can be yourself on the internet, and be proud of it. Or keep it to yourself, and never have to worry about being judged.
    January 28, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterdugarte

    Controlling content on facebook has become much more important as more companies and universities become aware of using OSIM to monitor who they hire or admit. When I first joined facebook it was limited to only colleges and universities. I had no idea that it would eventually be open to everyone but when it did it became even more dangerous to post embarrassing pictures. I had to then delete much of my pictures that I had posted with the belief that it would be for the eyes of my college peers. After taking control of my content, I began to worry about not only old content that I posted, but the pictures that still have me in them posted by someone else. Now as I am close to entering the job market, I must be aware of not only of the pictures I post, but the pictures that I allow to be taken of me. I believe that it is unethical to post embarrassing pictures of people online. Even though a person can untag themselves in an embarrassing photo on facebook, that does not remove the picture from being viewed through other people’s profiles. I now not only have to control the content that I post, but the pictures and content that my friends post. With a struggling economy and an extremely competitive job market, I do not want any online content whether I posted it or not, to hurt me in getting my dream job.

    On the other hand, OSIM such as facebook has allowed me to keep in contact with my family and friends that don’t live near me. I can post pictures of new friends and interesting things that I have done. Facebook can be a beneficial tool to help me get a job in the future and I have began to set my facebook profile in a resume type fashion. Now that I know employers will be viewing my facebook, I can post all my positive traits, qualities and activities I partake in to give me an advantage.
    January 28, 2009 | Unregistered Commentergretzky99

    Saving face on Facebook has become an issue that high school and college students have to deal with. Facebook and personal blogs are easily accessible outlets that give employers an insight to your true character. Some college students hoping to gain an interview after college are beginning to find out the hard way, that Facebook and My Space are preventing an interview from even taking place.
    January 28, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterjthought87

    I’ve heard about potential employers checking out these social networking sites. Is it ethical? I think it’s perfectly ethical. If I was an employer I would definitely want to see the interviewee’s page. Although making a decision on physical appearances is a little unethical. But the past is in the past, so learn from your mistakes and watch out what you post.
    January 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMikeJohn1013

    I agree whole-heartedly. I believe you should listen to Twain and not post anything (no matter how cryptic) that you would not want traced back to you. Similarly, I believe posting could-be incriminating pictures on Facebook is equally dangerous. Not only could you lose a job oppurtunity for looking foolish, you could even face criminal charges. For example, high school students have been turned in to the authorities for posting pictures on Facebook of themselves illegally drinking alcohol. The repurcussions for incriminating posts far outweigh the benefits. State your opinions, but consider how important your message is. If it is simply, “see how drunk I was last night,” you might want to reconsider.
    January 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSongbomb21

    Keeping a clean profile is something we as students are constantly reminded of. The thought of not being hired for a position based on my private life is entirely offsetting but when you actually consider the employer’s reasoning it makes much more sense. The internet is easily accessible to the public therefore making what you place on the internet easily accessible to the public. It doesn’t seem fair but some privacy rights are given up when you post things on sites such as Facebook.
    January 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCiaoBella

    Social networking has taken the idea of the classic diary (which is meant to be private) and opened it up for everyone to see. I have heard people complain about losing potential job opportunities because of their facebook pages, but I feel that if they are comfortable enough to share their information with the world, they should be comfortable enough to share it with application officers and employers.
    January 28, 2009 | Unregistered Commenteraimsk09

    I can honestly say it is quite scary signing on to facebook and seeing a friend request from your very own mother. As if bosses and colleagues are not bad enough. After realizing my mom was utilizing facebook, I knew it was time to crack down and hide every picture every outrageous wall post on my facebook page. However, it is possible to track those hidden photos and messages. Nothing on the web is deleted or hidden! Now that employers are learning how to use social networking sites it is very scary to know you may not be offered a position because of something they saw on the web. After I started my internship at a social media company I realized my entire job was educating companies on how to use social networking sites. However, most companies want to attract consumers via the web using these sites, so in the long run it does help companies understand a whole different generation.
    January 28, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterbosco

    Thinking back to the beginnings of the internet and the world of communication on this medium, I remember when my family first got AOL. My parents had a very long conversation with me about sharing information and the dangers of this. At 10 years old, the thought of someone tracking you down was enough to keep you away from the creepy chat rooms. When Xanga came about in middle school, my parents had this discussion with me again. My friends were bearing their souls on this “blog” site, available for everyone to see. At this point, there were VERY few privacy settings to ceep people safe. When Facebook came about, it was safe. SafER than other sites like it that is. Because of the college network separation, it was only available to people with a proper university email. Now, being open to everyone, it has become much easier for anyone to access someone elses information. I have my privacy settings at max, but as it says above, nothing is every really gone. This is a scary thought.

    However, on the note of “saving face” and employers and admissions officers using Facebook to judge future students or employees, I can say that as an employer and someone who has done numerous interviews and hired several people, I have done this myself. I don’t think it is necessarily a bad idea. On my Facebook, my information is who I am, my pictures show that I enjoy life and I love being with my friends. They also show that I am professional and have a job that is important to me. So what if I am drinking a beer in one of them, I’m not boring and I like to have fun. Sure, I censor my pictures and the occasional outlandish wall post, but I don’t agree with erasing my “life” on this profile completely. I wouldn’t want to be hired on at a job or accepted into a school with them thinking I am anything but who I am. This is what we found with our new hires. Their profiles simply let us into their lives a little. Would they fit in with the culture of our office and the personalities of our current employees? Do they work hard, but can they have fun too? I think Facebook can be a great way to get a glimpse of people past the stuffy interview questions and essays.
    January 29, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterinot1987

    Should a company or organization be allowed to make a hiring decision based on what they see or read about a person online? Absolutely. And they do. Some may argue that this is unfair to the applicant however, because so much of the content on the Internet, specifically social networking tools, can be vastly misinterpreted. While this is most certainly true, it’s not going to stop companies from researching people’s lifestyles online, and consequently making crucial judgment calls. It’s the content creator’s job to maintain a healthy, non-embarrassing presence online- one that doesn’t leave any room open for damaging misinterpretations.
    January 29, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterwachashi

    Facebook began as a fun social network for college-aged students to stay in touch with high school friends while away at college and also to meet fellow university students before the first day of class. In the past five years, the on-line social network has spread like wildfire and now my parents friends and my elderly neighbors are signing up for an account. It has spread to all ages and professions, therefore turning each Facebook profile into an account for all to see. While Facebook claims users can block their profiles to private (so only friends can see a profile), potential employers and college admissions offices can purchase programs to hack through the system and view any profile they please. Because of these new advances in technology, it is now more important than ever to keep your ‘face’ clean.
    January 29, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterkew27

    With the huge increase in OSIM, users need to be more aware of what they are posting online. While it may seem at face value unethical to check a person’s online profile before their in person profile, it is information you are posting. As long as a person feels comfortable posting all of this information on the web, they need to feel comfortable with anyone seeing this information. It is the world wide web and while some information seems very secure, it may not be. If someone is choosing to use OSIM, it is their responsibility to understand the pros and cons of this technology.
    January 29, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJacquelann

    Over the last five or so years, the amount of social networks on the Internet have seemed to multiply all the time. With younger and younger generations becoming more technology savvy, the Internet seems to offer a multitude of possibilities. That is not to say that all of these possibilities are positive. Companies and organizations are using social networks such as facebook , myspace, twitter, etc. to their advantage. I can’t say I blame them for snooping online, but it is a scary thought because I am about to go into the work place. I have a friend whose mom was able to check his facebook profile at her company , and she was very disappointed of his embarrassing pictures.
    I think what makes these networks scary is that it is the younger generations who these networks appeal to because the older generations do not understand the Internet like we do. Yet younger people do not always think about their future, and how something they carelessly wrote three years ago on some website could have an impact later on in their life. I think that schools should start teaching lessons about the potential dangers of the Internet in classes so that young kids are aware of they are doing.
    January 29, 2009 | Unregistered Commentersugar086

    When it comes to saving face on web sites such as FaceBook I think it will become more of an issue. It is crazy to think employers may look at such online profiles but at the same time people should expect that if they choose to share pictures of a night of drinking with friends online. Sometimes I see a picture of me a friend posted and think it is embarrassing, but it doesn’t always hit me that an employer could see it. As I approach graduation I will begin editing my online content. While nothing is permanently deleted at least my displayed content will reflect my current mindset and hopefully my past won’t matter too much to employers.
    January 29, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterEmily87

    The idea of saving your face on the internet has recently become quite popular. The idea that nothing is ever completely deleted and the fact that several admissions offices are basing things off of students online profiles are both very scary thoughts. I have heard of several people recently who are either cleaning up their online profiles or deleting them in hopes of having a better opportunity of getting a job. I truly believe in what Twain and Truman said and think that many people should take that into consideration before posting about themselves or others, as anyone is a journalist these days!
    January 29, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterk523

    Needless to say, no matter what your “privacy settings” may be, there is no separation of your public and private life on the Internet. I do believe it is “fair game” for employers, admissions counselors, etc. to look at online profiles. The ability of an employer to look at the social life, through OSIM, of a potential employee is used as any other online business-conducting resource. All actions (such as posting an inappropriate picture of yourself for the world to see) in life come with consequences (good and bad) and OSIM users should be willing to pay the price… whether it lands them a job or costs them a job. LinkedIn has proved to be a very straight-forward site that provides employers with useful job-related information. How many soon-to-be-grads are willing to shed the silliness of Facebook and using a site that is focused on creating professional connections? I’m not there quite yet, but I am seriously pondering it….
    January 29, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKUkris1

    I think employers or admissions offices looking at applicants profiles on Myspace or Facebook is invasive and a waste of time. The behaviors of individuals will persist regardless of whether or not photos are taken. If a potential new hire does not post illict pictures on Facebook, that doesn’t mean they don’t participate in scandalous activities. However, on the same token, individuals allow photos or information of themselves to be posted on their pages and in return approve of anyone to access it. It’s up to the individual to protect themselves from prying eyes.
    January 29, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJayhawk411

    While the world around us becomes more open, there lies the problem of being too vigilant with media connected to you (photos, blog posts, twitters, video, etc.) as it grows to the point of being too much to handle. Even if a person privatizes their OSIM account to the point of only showing their name and state,all it takes is a google search and a random tag in a posted story with their name on it to find out any juicy info. It gets to the point when you almost need to curb your actions to the extreme when trying to have an enjoyable night on the town with friends.

    The fear of not being protective enough can create an unending paranoia for the common OSIM user who just wants to stay connected with their friends. While I understand the reasons behind companies doing background checks on potential employees, it must also come with its limitations. Running a job applicant’s name through the police database is standard procedure but choosing not to hire this same person because of some embarrassing photos from a trip to Bermuda years ago? Like it or not, the employer hiring you has also made some embarrassing decisions in their lifetime and as such will be mindful of this when they dig deep through blog posts and internet gossip concerning you. If they decided to be hard-edged about this, however, then it will make it that much harder to find their ideal “perfect” employee in a timely manner.

    Should you want to seek political office in your future, be aware that detectives were rooting through prospective political figures’ pasts long before the internet existed and finding out just as much if not more on their secret lives.
    January 29, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBananagrams

    The fact that we are a social generation not only face to face but also online makes us not only unique but also the first. We are the example. What we do, say, blog, whatever, will be learned by future generations as either acceptable or not. “Saving face” online, what does that really mean? I think the Obama myspace thing is a great example. There is a difference between what kind of content should be considered for professionally and content that is for social purposes. Schools and businesses should take into consideration that students and employees wear many “hats” and social “hats” are different than professional “hats.” I’m a student at KU, I’m a brother, a son, a friend, and an awesome partier, those are all my “hats.” I shouldn’t have to differentiate that on facebook.
    January 29, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterfabi.f.babi

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