Hearing a student tell you, “I’m not on facebook” is a bit like someone admitting they don’t drink because they “just don’t like the taste”. Both will result in you feeling shocked and curious and it will permanently drive a wedge between potential friendship.
But that is a measure of how big a deal social networking is for young people now. Facebook alone is so huge it could have had a UN vote on the Libyan intervention. Blogging and twitter have led to the free spread of ideas that inspired the Arab Spring. No need for bald Russian communists waving red pamphlets any more. But do students really appreciate the permanence and widespread accessibility of what they are writing?
What a worrying thought it is that in 20 years time our children might go on facebook and see all of our student shenanigans. How unsettling that potential partners can look you up and discover things you might prefer to keep private: like who you used to date or what your family are really like. But perhaps most seriously, how disturbing that an employer you hope might hire you can, with just a few clicks, ‘google’ you – stumbling onto posts or pictures that seem to say anything but “employable”.
When social networking emerged it offered the opportunity for free expression, putting a megaphone to the unfiltered voice of the common man. Now though, it appears to be doing just the opposite. Obsessed and restricted with who might see our content, the damage it can do our career, or what it says about our identity, are we now simply on a personal ‘branding’ exercise, selling a version of ourselves crafted for the attention of employers and peers? It’s worth looking at how widespread social network screening is on the part of employers.
Dangers of a digital footprint
When you made your latest status update I doubt if you were thinking, “I wonder if this will help get me a job”. But it seems you probably should be. Careerbuilder.com reported that 45% of employers admitted to researching their candidates on social networking sites before hiring them.
And it doesn’t stop if you’re lucky enough to get the gig. Just look at Kimberly Swan, the 16 year old girl fired from her office job after calling it “boring” on facebook. Or 28 year old Matthew Brown, a supervisor for Starbucks. He was sacked for criticising the company on his travel blog, despite using a different username and having a limited audience. Some might argue that employers are well within their right to use your online material as a kind of second, informal reference. You could make the case that, despite the fact that office jobs like Kimberly Swan’s often can be boring, employees are the front line of the company they work for, with a duty to respect it. But then, Michael Brown’s blog was for his family. Kimberly Swan’s facebook was for communicating with friends. How can she be allowed to complain that her job is boring to her friends in conversation, but not able to write it to them on a website designed for social interaction. Not at least without seeing it as a risk.
Who’s following your footprints?
Besides, it could go far beyond careless remarks that reach the boss: because tracking your ‘digital footprint’ is so easy now. Consider this hypothetical example. An employer is choosing between two equally qualified candidates that he will have to work closely with for months. He checks them out on facebook and notices that the first candidate is, like him, a staunch Labour voter while the second is a Thatcherite Tory. Believing he will connect more with the Labour voter, he rejects the latter. You can sympathise with the rationale of the employer, but the rejected candidate has been turned down because of information about him that is irrelevant to how qualified he is and only available thanks to facebook.
And don’t think your safe with a pseudonym. In a competition challenging you to provide the best idea for improvements to their online content, the DVD rental website Netflix gave all entrants access to their entire database. Despite making it anonymous, two PhD students from the University of Texas were quickly able to cross-reference the database with reviews posted on IMDB (Internet Movie Database). It exposed private matters, such as people’s sexuality and political affiliations. What makes this especially worrying is that people, when under the guise of another name, usually decide to be more open than they would in the real world.
Facebook- A second CV?
Career advisors have clocked onto this and will now strongly emphasise the importance of your online identity. It’s not unusual to be advised by them against posting racy or controversial blogs and images – because you never know who could see them. Instead, increasing numbers of professional advisors will tell you ways to create a “positive image”. There are even companies, like Reputation.com, that will do it for you. They can swamp the first few pages of a search for your name with your website and career information while simultaneously removing your name from other objectionable websites.
But what are the consequences of this? Well, we now find ourselves reluctant to write anything controversial for fear of putting off companies you may want to work for one day. Is it now the case that if you want a job at the BBC, you shouldn’t write critical blogs about their programmes? If you want to be politician, should your Twitter be forever clean of references to drugs? At the rate social networking is expanding, the requirement may soon be to keep your politics centrist, your nights out tame, and even your friends ‘respectable’.
I find that very worrying. Consciously stopping yourself from writing a potentially interesting blog on a taboo subject or even just refusing to allow pictures from a stag night to appear sets a dangerous precedent. Do we really want an online community populated by heavily edited people with nothing but self-made propaganda to their name? I don’t think so, but it seems ‘branding’ yourself is becoming a paramount consideration.
People as brands
This kind of ‘branding’ is also apparent within our personal relationships. In the real world, varying social contexts will naturally shape your persona. When you’re with your work friends, you might be very different to how you are with your with school friends. But on facebook, you can’t interchange so easily and you’re forced to create a universal identity for everyone you know. It’s an issue for students, especially because we are starting a whole new chapter in our lives when coming to university. New friends, new hobbies, new surroundings. Yet, if you were hoping to reinvent yourself, you’ll now struggle when your uni friends can see all the pictures and online correspondence you ever had with your friends and family back home. Boyfriends and girlfriends can read up on ex’s and your life at school on a scale never before possible.
So, as with careers, the thought that goes into our personal ‘brand’ is not just centred on what we would like people to think of us now, but what they might be led to think of us in the future. You can’t click ‘undo’ on the Internet. For example, once you have made your relationship ‘facebook official’, there may be a part of you that dreads the possibility that one day you’ll have to change it back to “single” and everyone you’ve ever met will know all at once. Or it could just be that your mother pesters you to be her friend on facebook, meaning you might have to change the tone of your comments and pictures that appear.
Ultimately, the sheer enormity of social networking has brought with it some fantastic benefits and innovations of communication that are plain to see. But with that scale of impact comes risk, both personal and professional, because your ‘digital footprint’ can be seen by anyone. With our mothers and employers scanning through our material, is a reverse phenomenon taking place? Social networking created openness and visibility, but this visibility has developed into a big brother style “everybody is watching you” culture, Then, all that is left is at best a neutral, inoffensive and probably a bit unrealistically ordinary identity, and at worst a carefully constructed advert of ourselves.