Just a few random thoughts in response to yesterday’s much-e-mailed NYT column (For Some, Online Persona Undermines a Résumé) on the perils of posting too much information about oneself on social-networking sites (registration required, unless you use somebody else’s). The shorthand version: employers are trolling social networking sites like MySpace and Friendster looking for embarrassing personal tidbits posted by job applicants. College students, take note: Posting stories online about your own sexual and drug-related escapades might make you popular with your peers, but leave poor impressions with corporate HR departments.
As someone who generally thinks it’s a good idea to encourage people to create content and post it online, I hope, at one level, that job-seekers aren’t simply being punished for a certain official naïveté among corporate hiring departments. The odds that twentysomethings who don’t post about their social exploits actually have fewer of them seem, to me at least, to be approximately zero. Hiring the person who doesn’t (currently) keep a blog or have a Facebook profile doesn’t say anything about whether the candidate’s actual background is squeaky-clean or not. Their personal life may rival Washingtonienne‘s, it’s just not available online.
So what should companies infer from the absence of information about a candidate’s personal life online? The article gives one answer: it shows probity, circumspection, good judgment, and discretion. And to the extent that’s correct, it seems all to the good. On the other hand, perhaps what it shows is: technological unsophistication, ignorance, estrangement from the community of one’s peers, or an unhealthy self-absorption with one’s own public persona of the sort you sometimes see among student politicians, who have been preparing since birth for their own future Senate confirmation hearings. We don’t really know which it is, based solely on the lack of information about a job-seeker available online, do we? To infer that it’s always the former, desirable qualities is asking a lot of the dog who didn’t bark.
The real issue, it seems to me, is that there’s a mismatch between the perceived privacy of the web sites on which the students have posted their profiles, and the actual level of privacy they enjoy. From the Times article:
On MySpace and similar sites, personal pages are generally available to anyone who registers, with few restrictions on who can register. Facebook, though, has separate requirements for different categories of users; college students must have a college e-mail address to register. Personal pages on Facebook are restricted to friends and others on the user’s campus, leading many students to assume that they are relatively private.
But companies can gain access to the information in several ways. Employees who are recent graduates often retain their college e-mail addresses, which enables them to see pages. Sometimes, too, companies ask college students working as interns to perform online background checks, said Patricia Rose, the director of career services at the University of Pennsylvania.
In other words, users of social networking sites are in exactly the same position now that users of peer-to-peer file-sharing services were after the first wave of RIAA lawsuits: the illusion of relative anonymity (or at least, of a known and limited group of persons who have knowledge about one’s identity) has been punctured.
Some peer-to-peer users responded to the risk of lawsuits by building private “darknets,” sharing files only with a smaller community of known and trusted peers. The typical darknet is much smaller than the student body of any given college (or even high school), so it remains to be seen whether the concept can be “scaled up” to replicate the experience of the present social-networking sites. If it can, though, might that not be a solution for the problem identified in the Times article? You can continue to post all sorts of embarrassing personal details about yourself, just do so in a “social darknet” that is limited to people whom you really do trust are your peers.
I doubt this is a long-term solution, for the same reason I’m skeptical about darknets themselves growing beyond a certain size. Where there is enough money in play (either in the form of potential liability, such as in the RIAA lawsuits, or in the form of marketing opportunities, such as with the social networks), access to the darknet’s users becomes a monetizable commodity. But the prospect of setting up “closed” social networks to avoid the kind of disclosures highlighted in the Times article seems like an obvious next move, a possibility the Times ignores.