A few days ago, a relative living in Cincinnati forwarded a link to an article entitled, "Employers ask job seekers for Facebook passwords." The article's title captured my immediate interest both as a Technology Consultant and a father with a child less than a year away from completing her undergraduate degree and confronting her first serious barrage of job interviews. I posted a link to this article on my own FaceBook page and received some immediate, impassioned, feedback. Over the course of the last few days, this trend has garnered national attention culminating in an extended Today Show segment and discussion.
The issue of online privacy is of ever greater relevance. Ultimately, the line drawn between personal privacy and public access to data is likely to blur even further as we voluntarily expose ever greater layers of our lives to the digital universe. Like many, I have real concerns over the wholesale erosion of privacy the digital world is bringing about. However, I am a realist at heart, and preach to my daughter, her friends, m many of whom are also facing the scrutiny of employers in the coming months, my clients (and anyone else willing to listen), that the only safe approach is to assume that ANY piece of personal information no matter how seemingly innocuous and regardless of what platform(s) one decides to memorialize your thoughts or actions on is PUBLIC!
This "worst case," if it's digital, it is open access, scenario is understandably disheartening to many. As a conservative and an advocate of personal liberties this isn't an easy position for me to take. One need only look at the ongoing confusion over FaceBook's privacy policies and settings over the past few years to appreciate how easy, albeit unintentional, it is to expose personal actions and thoughts to the world at large. Even self-proclaimed Technology Professionals such as myself have found the myriad privacy settings and options dense and confusing. While Google+ has learned from FaceBook's missteps, by being created as a kind of intentional hybrid between FaceBook and Twitter, its content must also certainly be construed as public by default.
Of course this is different from a potential employer insisting you "freely" relinquish your social network account authentication as a condition of potential employment. I found it interesting one of the profiled employers on the Today Show taking this approach is an Illinois Sherriff's Department . The representative defended the practice and indicated that this is common interview procedure for law enforcement departments across the United States. If law enforcement enforces this loss of privacy in the hiring process, it is difficult to imagine much effort being put forth to uphold privacy protection of more global design.
Donny Deutsch argued on the Today Show, as have many others, the solution to this dilemma will naturally occur in the free market. Bright potential employees will refuse such requests and through the power of social media itself, companies insisting on this step in the employer/employee process, will be identified, "branded," and spurned. I believe in the free market and believe some equilibrium will be found. Today's tough economic times makes such choices, laudible or not, difficult. Still, I would prefer the marketplace to decide this outcome rather than layering additional laws onto an already thick pile of privacy rulings.
David Galernter wrote a well thought opinion yesterday in the Wall Street Journal entitled, "The Pros and Cons of Cyber-English." This op-ed piece deserves to be read in its entirety. Among the points he eloquently makes goes beyond the obvious linguistic and stylistic changes to our language which email, texting, and other electronic, social, conversations, have created. Mr. Galernter rightly eschews the use of emoticons declaring them "empty beer bottles in the literary flower garden." At the same time his comments are reassuring to those who might be concerned that the barrage of abbreviations and terse commentary are marking the end of modern day language as we have known it.
A major component of how your "private" social conversations can negatively impact how one might be viewed in the context of potential employment, or any number of other long term commitments, is the very way in which Generation-i, and to a large extent several generations who have come before consider online communication as a "real time" conversation rather than an indelible data point in their lives:
Digital words are disposable words. Partly the problem is technological; mostly it is psychological. Ink and paper (or parchment or papyrus) have functioned brilliantly as a presentation and storage medium for a couple of thousand years. It's easy to read a 300-year-old book or a 2,000-year-old scroll. Can you imagine booting a 2,000-year-old computer? For a technologist, "permanent" means the next 20 minutes.
Look at any FaceBook Wall, Google+ conversation, or, God knows, Twitter stream, and the immediacy, the "nowness" of the conversation is pervasive. Mr. Galernter, argues that Generation-i is being "plagued by nowness" at the expense of the "not now," reflecting on the past and contemplating the future....
Digital words seem cheap because they are, and they grow cheaper by the day. Consider the withering hailstorm of mail, text, social net and blog posts that assaults you the moment you go online. It's become impossible for many a normal, solid citizen to answer his email promptly. But young people seem increasingly apt to ignore uninteresting messages on purpose. If the message is important it will be resent, and if it isn't, who cares anyway? So the value of digital words sinks even lower.
I am certain that my daughter and her contemporaries give no thought to the future ramifications of the tweets and posts whipsawing across iPhones, Blackberry's and IMs on any given Friday night! This focus on commenting on "the now" and constantly receiving feedback as to what is going on with friends and family at this moment can provide a distorted vision of self which a potential employer who knows you only from a resume and (perhaps) interview, cannot place in context of your past and future values.
If you find this issue, or even this discussion, frustrating and concerning, you are likely to find solace in Jeff Jarvis's recent work, "Public Parts." This recent work explores these topics in depth and detail while maintaining a conversational tone. Mr. Jarvis has a deep understanding of the technology driving today's social media on the internet, but this book's focus is on broader social ramifications. He views the internet as a public resource deserving public protection.
The power to foment change, whether as a catalyst in the recent Arab Spring uprisings, how we communicate in our everyday lives, how we partner with employers and spouses, all is being rewritten in the "now." I have clients and friends whose memories extend back to the "dark ages" of pre-2000 where job interviews, GPAs and perhaps even references were still the primary determinants in the selection process. In these bygone days, submitting an electronic resume was a novelty, not the norm.
I try to embrace change. I believe adapting to change is a positive force in life. This is a key factor in my lifelong love of technology; one need not wait long or look far into the distance to find something new, exciting, and occassionally, life changing. I continue to marvel at how different the world is today.
When I graduated from college, and a few years later from graduate school, Facebook's founder was in diapers, cell phones had yet to be invented, and sending a post meant heading to the local Post Office. Thirty years later, my daughter and her friends face an entirely new construct and yes, new challenges. I envy them the journey which lies ahead. Whether you find the idea of exposing your social universe in the quest for a potential job abhorrent or just a necessary evil in today's world, you have to reflect that your life's footprint is going to be written in digital ink and what you say now, will be a drop in your self-portrait "forever" (or at least until the next revolution flips our world again).
Let us know how you feel on the subject by voting in today's Music Row Tech poll (nearby). b4n!
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