We’re used to sharing every detail of our lives online. But, asks Lifestyle Editor Moya Crockett, will this benefit us in the long run?
It’s approaching the end of term, and for students in their final year, the prospect of graduation is beginning to loom menacingly. What once seemed a faintly ridiculous proposition – wot, us? Join the real world? – now seems like it might, you know, actually happen. People are beginning to think about what they might do next. A grad scheme, an internship, maybe a master’s degree. And on the parallel world of my Facebook newsfeed, a small but noticeable phenomenon is occurring. People are changing their surnames.
There’s only one reason for this, and that’s fear. In an age where our online presence will actively shape our search for a reasonable future, many students are genuinely unsettled by the prospect of the “real them” being uncovered by prospective employers. Changing their name online is one way, they hope, that they won’t be tracked down. Our parents had the luxury of pretending to be someone they weren’t when it came to job-hunting. The chances of their interviewer seeing a photo of them vomiting into a bin on a Saturday night were negligible. It was unlikely that something idiotic they said at the age of 15 would come back to haunt them. But, as we all know, things are different now.
Generation Y has grown up with social media as the backdrop to our lives. Over the course of our communal adolescences, we’ve segued seamlessly from Bebo to MySpace to Facebook, dipping our toes into Twitter and Instagram along the way. A 2013 UCAS survey found that over 92% of UK university applicants are on Facebook (a statistic which actually seems quite low, doesn’t it?), while 73% tweet, and 27% post photos on Instagram. Ultimately, we use social media for two reasons: to facilitate connections with people, and to create an attractive image of ourselves. Once upon a time, having 892 Facebook “friends”, thousands of tagged photos showing you in various states of disarray, and a Twitter feed full of references to your hangover might have seemed kind of cool. However, the reality is that it really won’t look that way to potential employers.
The idea of someone peeking, uninvited, into our online social lives with the sole purpose of judging us can feel unfairly intrusive. (I remember my rage, aged 14, when my dad told me he’d looked at my MySpace page. “That’s PRIVATE!” I yelled, mortified that a member of my family had seen my extensive gallery of selfies. He shrugged. “No, it’s not. Anyone could Google it. Why not me?”) But employers researching candidates online is no different to how you might Facebook–stalk someone you fancy: it’s simply how things are done now. And what happens if you left-scroll through your love interest’s profile pictures and discover that, three years ago, they were a bit of a dweeb? No matter how great they are now, that kind of information could still put you off.
“Employers’ use of online social networking sites to research job candidates raises a variety of notable implications,” says Alessandro Acquisti, professor of information technology and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University in the U.S. “A vast number of job candidates reveal personal information on these sites that employers can’t ask in an interview or infer from a résumé.” A recent large-scale field experiment conducted by Acquisti and his colleagues at CMU found conclusive evidence (as if we needed it) that sharing personal information on social media can hinder your chances of finding a job.
Hannah Bouckley, BT’s tech and gadgets editor, advises first locking down one’s profile through privacy settings, and even suggests that graduates should effectively delete their online pasts. “If you’re just coming out of university, you may have had a Facebook account for several years, which means it may be packed with photos and posts from your youth, when you were perhaps more immature – maybe discovering alcohol, going wild on a lads’ holiday, falling madly in love or hitting the university booze trail… The safest solution is to delete every incriminating post or photo.” The safest option, perhaps, but not, I can wager, a very popular one: for lots of us, part of the brilliance of social media is the role it’s played in documenting our lives since we were teens. Every now and then, I love flicking back to 2008 on my Facebook page and groaning at the state of 16-year-old me. But that doesn’t mean I want a potential employer to do the same, and so that shit is private, private, private.
It’s not all doom and gloom, however. If your online identity can prevent you from getting a job, it can also be turned around to help you find one. Personal contacts are still the best way to secure a new position, so putting out the word on social networks that you are job-hunting could be a useful tactic, particularly as a growing number of recruitment managers now say they use social networks to headhunt. LinkedIn has always been associated in my mind with annoying emails asking you to join, but it’s nevertheless a great way of publishing your experience – essentially a more personal, online CV. Louie, 21, graduated this summer and is now interning at a Manchester-based creative studio. “I got the placement I’m on at the moment through LinkedIn conversations, and other creative agencies have since got in touch over Twitter,” he says. “Social media’s definitely been helpful to my career.” Many professions, such as those in public relations, the media and the arts, encourage an active, responsible Twitter presence as a means of promoting your own professional reputation and that of the company you work for, and the ability to skilfully navigate social media is one area where young jobseekers will genuinely have the edge over older rivals.
The temptation to overshare is always at our fingertips, but being conscious of the image you project online is crucially important for today’s students. Give yourself a Google and see what comes up – because you won’t be the only one doing it.