April 17, 2011 5 Comments
Some personal history. I genuinely can’t remember not ever having access to a computer in my life. My dad has worked in IT for years, and we always had computers and gadgets around. One of my earliest memories of technology is my sister making me watch her play Alone In The Dark (the first one, made in 1992, when I was 4) and me having nightmares about it(!) I can’t have been older than 6 or 7.
I don’t remember when I first used the internet, but I distinctly remember how frustrating the cumbersome dial-up internet was, before all this newfangled broadband stuff turned up. I remember accidentally racking up a gigantic bill and being banned from using it until after 6pm. I also recall nagging my parents for months to switch to broadband, which, I’m happy to say, they did. Eventually.
Around that time I developed friendships with people online over a love of a London-based band. We met up, and I had a relatively bizarre social life at the age of 13/14 – going out to gig venues in London and getting drunk, hanging out with 20-something year old guys in bands. I then became a key member of another online community when I was 15 in 2003 – a project that ended in 2009 – but something that everyone involved looks back on with misty-eyed fondness. When I say ‘key member’ – I mean that my participation in it waxed and waned, but there were always people there who knew who I was, liked what I had to say and enjoyed my being around. I made amazing friends, and I made hated enemies. Such was my presence that I later found out that some of the biggest arguments between administrators was over whether or not I should be banned or left to stew in my own juices when things got rough and I pushed them too far. I’ve always been like marmite, it seems.
When you’re being judged on everything you say at such a young age, you learn to grow up quickly. So – my point to all this background is I suppose you could say I am a true child of the “digital generation“, and I absolutely 100% know what I’m talking about when I talk about online identity. It’s been something I’ve struggled with for the best part of the last decade.
Employers and the Internet
Employers are now starting to use the internet to suss out people before they go to interviews. Have an unsavoury Facebook photo? No interview. One of my biggest concerns now is that as someone who has left all kinds of remnants of my life over the internet, spread far and wide, will employers judge me over this? To frame it another way – in an age of open social media and where people are easily Google-able – must we all tread so carefully, lest we be judged by people who may employ us? And to weave an entirely different argument in – is it fair for employers to expect that potential employees either don’t have social lives, or is it fair for them to judge candidates on photos from social nights out, or Facebook statuses generally intended for friends?
In my view, of course it’s not. Yet some employers have started demanding access to Facebook accounts. Whereas before the internet you could do whatever you want, wherever you want, without it being likely you will be caught – now social media almost acts as some kind of digital CCTV watching your every move; tagged photos are a sign of where you’ve been, who you’ve been with, and what you’ve been up to. Tweets, meant as transient thoughts or observations, can be misconstrued or frame people in a negative light if the context isn’t understood.
Where’s the line between personal and professional personas?
Now, there rarely is one. It’s incredibly difficult to compartmentalise your life online. Trust me, I have tried it. People intent on finding you will always find you, and for my part, I’m easily Google-able. I don’t think that what you find is so inherently abominable that no one will employ me, but I find it odd practice that employers can judge potential employees based on information online. For the following reasons:
1) Time relevance. I don’t think that it’s fair or even remotely sensible to judge young people (I say young people particularly, as they have grown up with freer access to the internet) based on their online personas. Is there really going to be any worth in judging someone based on, for example, old forum posts from five years ago? People change a lot, especially in the years between young teenager and young adult. People’s beliefs and attitudes can change dramatically. Judging an old post, or old account, is worthless to an employer anyway.
2) Confusion with names. Luckily for me, there’s not a lot that comes up on a Google search for me that isn’t actually me. But there is actually someone else in the UK with my name, who isn’t me, who I don’t know. I don’t have any control over this. What if a potential employer judges me on the things she says on Facebook (as her profile is open and findable)? Is that fair on either of us? Not at all. We should be judged as we are as people in real life, not based on whatever kind of lifestyle or persona we have built for ourselves online.
3) Pot, kettle, black. Find me a boss who never makes a mistake, and you’ll find a liar. I don’t think it’s right to be judged on things that, essentially, every person has done, or does. Of course everyone is bound to have said stupid things, had unflattering photos taken or done something stupid whilst drunk. It’s basically a given. So I don’t think it fair for bosses to penalise others for things they themselves would do.
4) No relevance to professionalism. Very often social networks are literally just that – a harmless network of friends, a place to share photos and swap stories. In other words, an entirely different context to actually working. I could understand if there were perhaps conflicts of interests but mostly what employers will find on Facebook et al is banter between friends (that can appear worse to an outsider), or dodgy photos. What’s more, what relevance is the information on social media, to how well they can do the job? Some of the hardest working people I know are also the hardest partiers, who swear the most and can drink everyone else under the table. But they have a great work ethic in a professional environment. That is what matters.
What’s more – people have different personas for different contexts. Or at least I do. More about that later. I will leave it there for the moment. The idea of self-identity and how that works with online networks really intrigues me. How do we integrate our online lives with our real ones? I’ll try and keep an eye on developments with regards to employers but somehow I think it will only get worse. Ironic that social media – which is supposed to free us from the constraints of expressing oneself in real life – is now being used to penalise people.