The “Enormous Consequences” of Misunderstanding Facebook


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.

955839104_b42f32d69eFinally, 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.

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5 Responses to The “Enormous Consequences” of Misunderstanding Facebook

  1. Enh. I agree that people overestimate the “public” nature of Facebook. That said, too many people assume it’s more private than it really is. Copy + paste really does make it all … publicizable.

  2. Sarah Davies says:

    I agree, the social networking that Facebook allows is far more valuable than the remote chance that a prospective employer would gain unauthorized access and judge you entirely based on your college drinking habits.

    In fact, we once checked out a web development consultant on Facebook only to find that his public-facing profile picture was him holding a martini glass with a tiara that said “Princess” on it. We still hired him, but then again, we’re the ACLU…

  3. So I definitely agree that employers who are upset about underage drinking are probably not the type you want and are well behind the times, but I think more has to be done to convince employers that underage drinking doesn’t mean the candidate won’t be a good employee.

    Anecdote: a friend just had an interview with a major US government agency. Towards the end, the interviewer was like, “By the way, you should be careful what you make available on public search engines. For example, we know your favorite drink is _____.” Turns out, she had something on a site for a club she is involved with. She had no idea. [She got the job, though.]

    Anecdote 2: in my senior year of high school, a girl was upset about not making the cheer-leading team, so her mother and her found pictures of the rest of the squad drinking, etc. Turned them into the school because we had an athletic code that bars drinking. So, even though the pictures were only available to the “right” social sphere, they were made available to people outside that. Those drunken cheer-leaders maybe should have restricted those photos to just close friends, but that is unlikely to happen (not enough people wear tinfoil hats, I guess).

    What I think is the most important is education of both job candidates and employers. There’s plenty of room for both, as those experiences, or even the Bozeman, MT debacle, show.

  4. One more thing:

    “In practice, if you’re not a celebrity, the world just isn’t likely to care about your big beer pong victory.”

    I don’t think that’s quite fair. The partying teenager doesn’t know that they may become the somber politician. Or the celebrity. Nor do they necessarily know that certain pictures are in existence (maybe lying dormant on a high school friend’s hard drive, ready to be shared).

    I think we’re in for a lot of surprises and pain for my generation, but ultimately people will have to accept that young people do certain things that their older selves would not.

  5. One thing about Facebook is when someone is “tagged” in a photo they didn’t upload. I think these become visible outside their chosen network.

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