Last week, I attended two different forums, which got me thinking about “digital imaging”. By this, I am not referring to scanning and digitizing content, but the image and reputation which we convey electronically.
Forum #1 was a presentation on social media and how nonprofits can utilize this channel in order to enhance their organizations. The session was facilitated by a true expert and was informative to me in a variety of ways. The use of tools like Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and blogs, among others are definitely the way that organizations connect with one another and with individuals. It is the way to get the message out.
Forum #2 was about the current state of technology, specifically the Internet. The target audience here was parents of school age children* and beyond. Going into that presentation, I would have estimated that I was probably more digitally connected than most in the room. But, when I left, there was definitely food-for-thought as a parent and as a professional. Two take-home messages that were not novel, merely reinforced were that: data are not as secure as we would hope; and that the Internet does not forget.
In an effort to reconcile the lessons learned from those forums, I have come up with the following post. My perspective is influenced by a variety of conjoined hats: a Human Resource professional/recruiter/career counselor; a morally upstanding adult member of society (at least I try to be); a Psychologist; and a parent. The first lesson is that we have to somehow be digitally and socially connected. That is the way of the world and will continue to be the manner through which people and organizations relevant to us communicate their messages. There are tremendous opportunities out there to utilize technology in a productive way. But, at the same time, we must be very cautious in terms of how we go about this, as the space is largely unregulated.
Social Media and One’s Image: The Personal-Professional Overlap
There have been many articles written recently about how one’s social media persona applies to the workforce. One such example is on Forbes.com written by Lisa Quast entitled “How Your Social Media Profile Can Make or Break Your Next Job Opportunity”. Pertaining to Facebook, she writes: “Always follow the old saying about not posting anything that would make you embarrassed if it were published on the front page of a newspaper. Don’t use Facebook as a forum to vent on everything you hate about life, your job, someone else, or a company – talk to a friend in person if you feel the need to vent. Some people recommend creating separate personal profiles – one for business and one for family and close friends only – but this is not recommended because it can be next to impossible to manage.”
What is included in this electronic personality? It could be activities performed all of the time including “status updates” on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, or Gmail/Gchat. Photos uploaded to Facebook are in this category as well. (It should be noted that Facebook uses sophisticated facial recognition protocols in their “tagging” protocols to link people and events. That being said, pictures can be digitally “passed around” quite easily and without anyone’s explicit approval). It also could be a thread of text messages or emails which has been archived.
We might see some of the content that we post as silly, frivolous, funny, or innocuous. But, a comment or image might be construed in either a negative or less than professional light to supervisors, co-workers, or (potential) recruiters. Since the divide between things personal and work-related have blurred, the impact of something online will play a role in how others who will be rendering employment decisions about will be making assumptions about you. With all of the legal safeguards in place that might potentially regulate illegal employment decisions, in a time of ubiquitous unregulated information access, all bets are off. The old adage is that “you are what you eat.”. I would suggest amending this for 2012 to “you are what you Tweet….or text….or post….or blog”.
Comprehensive background investigations are commonplace for jobs which require a Security Clearance. Those types of investigations are conducted in an effort to assess the person’s character and to identify potential points of vulnerability to blackmail and espionage. Agencies are looking for specific activities such as drug and alcohol abuse and associations with certain individuals which might pose a threat to the mission of the organization or national security. Therefore, a spontaneous comment or photograph at a party from 15 years ago that was archived could raise a red flag or two in this regard.
The Genie Leaves the Bottle Forever
Once the information is “out there”, the proverbial genie is out of the bottle. Forever. Consequently, it can be accessed by virtually anyone from that point onward. It might happen tomorrow, next week, or in 15 years. Whenever that is, you will not have the opportunity to clarify, apologize, or regret. There will likely not be a chance to plead the “I was joking”, “I was immature”, or “I got drunk” defenses. Unlike yesteryear when a photograph or publication of which one is not exactly proud could be reliably hidden or destroyed, the data we keyboard in today will be around forever. Stand-alone PC’s of the past could be erased or purged. But today, entries to Facebook, Twitter, or blogs become property of those companies. The companies let you set up accounts for free, in exchange for basically owning your data. Once that happens, these data might eventually be transferred to another party without your knowledge. This is a stipulation in the rarely reviewed boiler plate language that comes up on the screen when you open an account, before you click “I accept”. IT experts have confirmed that deleted content or even a shut-down/deleted Facebook account might still be quite publically available in cyberspace afterwards. I just did a cursory Google search on myself. I was amazed to see that an entry of mine on a now-defunct scholarly Listserv from about 15 years ago was still alive and well!
The Social Scientist in me points to a rapid information cycle as one root cause. This is often manifested by shorter communications with fewer characters on devices which are designed for speed. A “text” is a primary example. Speed is paramount, and precision is clearly not the focus. Furthermore, there is a lowered sense of responsibility. Normal interpersonal and social inhibitions that would exist in face-to-face or other real-time communications fall away. As such, people are not as much on their guard and take chances, without paying attention to potential consequences. There is no comprehensive retrospective review in some database of what has been communicated. In Social Psychological terms, dynamics of “diffusion of responsibility” and “deindividuation” are operational. More recently, Dr. John Suler of Rider University discusses the “online disinhibition effect**”. This refers to the loosening or abandonment of social restrictions and inhibitions that would otherwise be present in normal face-to-face real time interactions. These principles can easily be applied to social media, email, texting, and blogs. (There have been applications of this construct used to explain cyberbullying as well.)
Additional Words of Digital Caution and Responsibility
Identify theft is rampant today. Accounts are hacked regularly. Laptops with sensitive data carried by employees can be lost or stolen. Just this week, millions of LinkedIn passwords (including mine) were compromised and users were urged to change their passwords immediately. This was not the first time and certainly won’t be the last.
Another salient word of caution applies to when PC’s and accounts are left open or otherwise unsecured. It is entirely possible that someone else can use your PC and use your account both at home and at home. While it is often more convenient to leave an account open to get in and out of it more easily, there is the potential to hijack your account where someone unwittingly (or intentionally) is you. I am aware of one such case in which a sibling did not take kindly to a job rejection email. He expressed his displeasure in graphic terms to the employer, on behalf of his brother who did not lock down his personal email. This advice is relevant to email, social media, and sensitive financial information. (Under most circumstances, it is immoral to read anyone else’s email and personal correspondence without consent in a scenario of unsecured access. It goes without saying that using someone else’s email and posing as that party in sending out correspondence to others also falls into this same category of objectionable behavior.)
In a more general sense, one must be careful about all of the online activities in which he/she engages at work. Employers have expectations that all of their employees will perform their job responsibilities during the compensated work day. Technically and legally, the PC that one uses at work is the property of the employer as is the time during the work day. While most employers are reasonable and might allow some reasonable personal activity while “off the clock” (e.g., during the lunch hour), they would not look positively at managing personal email, paying bills, shopping or other activities throughout the day. This applies not only to one’s work email, but personal accounts accessed over the Internet as well. Like work activities, these too are stored on the company server.
All of these same issues really apply to mobile devices like smart phones and tablets as well. Here too there is an illusion that one’s actions done quickly and remotely are fleeting. But, these devices are simply a different access point of inputting content into the same universe of information as discussed above. Caution is encouraged here as well.
The challenge of living and working in the modern world is to use the Internet and social media in a productive and positive way, while at the same time being smart and cautious. Our online persona and digital image is now inextricably connected to our “real” reputation– with all of its privileges, responsibilities, and accountabilities. This applies to us as individuals and also carries over to the organizations which we represent.
*The scope of this essay does not include a discussion about young children using the Internet, Social Media or video games. Parents should be fully aware of the existence of inappropriate content and predators out there in society who seek to connect with them. Filters and monitors are helpful resources in this regard. But, appropriate and informed parenting skills and common sense are equally desirable.
**Suler, J. (2004). The online disinhibition effect. CyberPsycholology and Behavior, 7(3), 321-326.