This sentiment gets repeated so casually and matter-of-factly that it has almost become a cliché:
Social-networking sites allow members to create individualized pages that often include personal information such as relationship status, age, city of residence and birth date, as well as photos, videos and personal comments.
Yet there can be enormous consequences.
That alcohol-related post-prom picture? Someday an employer or college admission officer might come across it with a quick click on Google. Hitting delete to get rid of a questionable photo won’t help. The digital imprint never goes away and could be flitting across computer screens around the world.
The specific example of “enormous consequences” offered here is distinctly underwhelming. In the first place, has the author ever used Facebook? The photos you upload there aren’t available with a “quick click on Google.” Typically, your Facebook photos are only available within your social network. And if you like, you can restrict access further, specific lists of named friends. All the major social networking sites offer similar features.
Second, this paints an incredibly unflattering picture of the nation’s employers. First we’re supposed to believe that this prospective employer is nosy enough to gain unauthorized access to your Facebook page. Then we’re supposed to believe that he’s got so much free time on his hands that he’s willing to sort through hundreds of mostly-innocuous photos in order to find that one embarrassing post-prom picture. And finally, we’re supposed to believe that he’s going to be so priggish that once he finds a picture of you doing body shots, he’s going to stop considering your application.
I suppose there are a few employers out there that fit that description. But frankly, I wouldn’t want to work for them. Moreover, this type of employer almost certainly skews older, so today’s high school kids are less likely to ever encounter someone like that than I am.
Finally, there’s the claim that “the digital imprint never goes away and could be flitting across computer screens around the world.” It’s also true that the Earth “could be” hit by an asteroid this weekend. In practice, if you’re not a celebrity, the world just isn’t likely to care about your big beer pong victory. So they’re not likely to show up on Google, and if you delete them they’ll almost certainly stay deleted.
Now, to reiterate, I don’t really fault this particular reporter, who’s simply repeating the conventional wisdom. I think the problem is that this is a subject where peoples’ intuitions are lagging way behind the pace of technological change.
Before the emergence of the web, information fell into basically two categories: public or private. Information that got published (say in a newspaper) was public and available to everyone. Not only that, but information in the newspaper was highly visible; you could expect that lots of people in your town will notice if a picture of you goes into the paper. On the other hand, information that didn’t get published (say the photos in your photo album) was private and in practice only available to a tiny handful of people. “Public” and “private” were distinct categories, with very little in between.
Now there’s a spectrum. Putting a photo on Facebook is obviously more public than keeping it in a traditional photo album. But it’s also a lot less public than publishing it in the newspaper. Unfortunately, most people don’t have an intuitive category for this kind of information-sharing. And so (especially if they have limited personal experience actually using them), they lump it into the “public” category. And then they get alarmed at the idea of kids putting embarrassing pictures “on the Internet.” But “the Internet” isn’t one big publication that’s available to everyone. It’s a lot of individual sites, the most popular of which offer all sorts of ways you can protect your privacy.