Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Dear Diary ... and Potential Employers

Today my mom showed up to breakfast brandishing an article from the front page of the New York Times (incidentally, the link I just gave you is from the Seattle Times, but it's the same text). In case you don't choose to read it yourself, the article is basically a warning to young would-be employees that potential employers now frequently check Facebook, Myspace, and Friendster profiles during the hiring process, and if they don't like what they see (i.e. a photo of you next to a giant bong), well, you might as well have printed your resume on toilet paper.

Although it is not expressly mentioned, I assume that this warning extends to bloggers, too. Just the other day I read an article about a blogger who was caught writing satirical essays about her industry and, when she was fired, found herself at the epicenter of a media maelstrom. Unfortunately, this particular story has no moral, as the woman in question became an insta-celebrity and now has a lucrative book deal (I should be so lucky).

The article got me thinking about privacy. We all know, in theory, that the Internet is an unstable and relatively untrustworthy universe when it comes to personal privacy. Everyone worries about credit card fraud and identity theft, and many of my friends balked at my new subscription to Gmail, Google's searchable web-based mail system. "Anyone can read your mail, you know," one friend warned. At the time it gave me pause, but then I remember thinking: Eh! Who cares? I mean, I often don't wash fruit and sometimes I don't (!) even (!) sign (!) out (!) of (!) online (!) banking (!) before (!) I (!) close (!) the (!) browser (!!!!!!!!!); in other words, I look at safety and privacy as big picture kind of problems, but I don't sweat the small stuff. Viruses (both of the tainted fruit variety and of the computer bug variety) have yet to get me.

I accept that my blog is something that people can freely read. I am responsible for everything I post, every last expletive, every last reference to my own drunkeness or personal failure (neither of which, I might add, are habitual). If a potential employer were to Google me, the first link on the list would lead them right here. What could someone glean about me from poring over this blog? In the best-case scenario, someone might imagine me to be a talented writer who is smart, funny and thoughtful. In the worst-case scenario, someone might decide I'm a flippant, unemployed whiner who procrastinates, over-shops, and goes on drunken boating expeditions. In effect, you could read this blog and make a lot of judgments about my personality or my social life (that may or may not be true), but as I rarely blog about my work, how could anyone make accurate judgments about me as an employee based on what's written here? That's right; they couldn't.

The Facebook-Myspace-Friendster issue is stickier. As someone who is a member of two out of three of these sites, I'd like to think that I can see the debate from both sides. On the one hand, it is widely understood (at least by the people who subscribe) that these sites are places to network, to find friends and dates, and to have a sort of homepage where you can post the pictures, music, and diary entries that you think will show people who you are (or, perhaps more commonly, that will show people how you want them to see you). On the other hand, the sites give you the option of making your page private - thus warning you that your profile may be visible to the Web at large - and many, many people don't take advantage of this feature (myself included). I understand both sides of the debate, but here is what I think: for potential employers to look at kids' online profiles in order to make professional decisions is in poor taste. I'd even go so far as to say that I think it's bordering on an invasion of privacy. Yes, these sites are not entirely private, but a lot of people don't know that. In our increasingly computerized and Internet-centered world, places like Myspace, Friendster, and Facebook are basically modern diaries. The fact that some kids (and adults) choose to share their private information with others is less a testament to their lack of modesty than it is a testament to the lack of modesty of society at large. If we live in an age when, at the click of a button, you can see the latest celebrity sex tape, an animated cartoon satire about the president, or the beheading of Daniel Pearl, how is it surprising that our definitions of privacy and propriety have changed?

Let me tell you two little stories. I know a girl who is an extremely responsible, smart, and talented girl. If she showed up for a job interview, she would impress you as being all of the above. Furthermore, she would work hard and excel. If you looked on her Myspace page, you'd see a photo of her posing provocatively in lingerie. Why? I don't know, I guess she wanted to feel sexy, and show other people that she is sexy. Is it a good idea to have this photograph online? Maybe not. Is it reflective of her potential job performance? Not at all.

My second story concerns a guy I know. He's a great guy and a great friend, but he drinks too much, smokes too much pot, and indulges in cocaine every once in awhile. He's thrown up at work before due to hangovers, but he still gets hired. His Friendster profile? Clean as a whistle.

Oh, wait, one more. There's this powerful guy I know who had an amazing job, but then had an affair with a co-worker -- actually, an underling -- and when it became public he almost lost his job. He was married, and had a kid. It was all over the 'Net. You don't have to look him up on MySpace, though. I'll save you the trouble: it's Bill Clinton. Wanna hire him?

Look, I know that Bill Clinton never posed provocatively in underwear (that we know of), and I'm not saying that people shouldn't be held accountable for their judgment in terms of how they choose to present themselves on sites like MySpace. Everyone should think long and hard about how they present themselves to the world. What I'm saying is that an online profile is, at best, a true refelection of a person's social life and cannot, under any circumstances, be used to envision what that person might be like at work. I would understand if potential landlords wanted to look at these sites, because a person is much more likely to hold beer pong tournaments at home than in the office. When it comes to the working world, though, call me crazy, call me naive, even call me (gasp!) modest, but when it comes down to it, I guess I still believe that a resume and a list of references should do just fine.
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