Facebook: job-hunting, non-invisibility, and the creepiness factor

Note to job applicants: your potential employers aren’t just looking at Google and Yahoo.

Sunday’s New York Times includes a really interesting article by Alan Finder on how some companies now investigate job applicants on social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace, Xanga, and Friendster. See For Some, Online Persona Undermines a Résumé.”

The article underscores a simple but important fact: users of social network sites shouldn’t assume that their postings are private. Although names like “MySpace” paint an image of personal spaces, personal doesn’t mean private. It’s not difficult to get into these sites – as the article notes, for some sites such as MySpace, you generally only need to register. For Facebook, to view entries for a particular college, you only need an e-mail address from that college.

That means an awful lot of people can view Facebook entries: alumni with email addresses (which could include potential employers), professors, even campus police. Despite this, at an emotional level, many people assume that their personal websites, blogs, and social network postings are relatively personal spaces that won’t be noticed or invaded by others. These assumptions are wrong in at least two ways.

First, people might assume – incorrectly – that they’re not going to be noticed. True, most postings to personal websites, blogs, and social networking sites are probably viewed by hardly anyone, and at best by only a few of the poster’s friends. Because of this, people get a sense of false security that they’re broadcasting only to their personal crowd. That’s probably true for the most part, unless somebody’s looking you up. As said by Susan Crawford in an excellent posting on social networking, “Oddly, people using these spaces may feel that they’re just having a conversation with their friends, not thinking about large-scale, perhaps automated searches/hunts about them carried out. This is like being on a live TV interview, and seeing only the guy across from you, and not realizing that anyone can see you in the world.”

Susan’s right. Many posters assume that internet infoglut makes them invisible; after all, how will they stand out from the millions of other postings? But infoglut doesn’t create invisibility. At best, posters are relatively invisible. But when you combine social networking sites with indexing and searching capacities, relative invisibility can be fleeting.

Second, posters seem to expect – dangerously – that outsiders shouldn’t and therefore won’t intrude into their spaces. In the blogging context, Mike Madison recounts an instance where he forwarded to a Pitt Law colleague a link to a blog posting about that prof and another faculty member. One of them then casually mentioned to the student blogger that he or she had read the post. As Mike says, “The student was a bit surprised, I think; students generally expect that their blogging is their ‘space,’ and faculty (and others) shouldn’t intrude.”

But outsiders do intrude, and they might include law enforcement authorities. Ed Felten has described the use of social network sites by Princeton’s Public Safety officers (i.e., the Princeton campus police) in investigations into alcohol use and campus building-climbing. Particularly interesting is the controversy that ensued after it was revealed that Facebook was used in the investigations. In the end, Ed reports that “Public Safety stated that it would not hunt around randomly on Facebook, but it would continue to use Facebook as a tool in specific investigations. Many people consider this a reasonable compromise.” Ed further noted, “It feels right to me, though I can’t quite articulate why.”

Mike’s and Ed’s postings both touch upon a sense of some and perhaps many students that outsiders – professors, campus authorities, etc. – are not particularly welcome at student sites. That’s somewhat understandable: think of the family reunion where an older, uncool uncle hangs around a bit too long with the younger folks. I’d call this the creepiness factor. The creepiness factor is amplified when it’s law enforcement authorities who come visiting. But expectations that outsiders will stay away are dangerous. Considering the relative anonymity of web surfing, it’s doubtful that social norms will emerge to deter others from browsing student sites. If anything, the tremendous attention being given to social networking guarantees that more people will check these sites out.

Nonetheless, Ed’s posting suggests at least one way in which institutions might be pressured into adopting norms that limit their review of social networking sites. As Ed notes, after student outrage, the Princeton Public Safety director promised to use Facebook only in specific investigations. The Daily Princetonian reports that under new guidelines, “Officers can continue to use Facebook as a supplementary source for investigations, but cannot scour the site for parties or other activities. In addition, officers are prohibited from identifying themselves as students in their Facebook accounts.” In discussing the compromise, Ed notes the difficulty in trying to articulate why it’s reasonable for campus police to use Facebook as part of a specific investigation but not as a tool for random hunting.

Ed’s right that it’s difficult to articulate what’s reasonable and what isn’t. Maybe the distinction goes back, at least in part, to the creepiness factor noted above. Even if social network sites are public or semi-public, it’s creepy to think that law-enforcement authorities are trolling student sites on a general fishing expedition for inappropriate behavior. (And the creepiness is magnified a thousandfold-plus when the materials being perused are private. NSA, anyone?)

But it’s hard to conclude that it’s equally creepy for authorities to look up public materials as part of a specific investigation. (Which begs uncertainty, however, over just what is meant by a “specific” investigation…) And the same can probably be said, I think, about employment recruiters who use social networking sites to research specific applicants.

Thanks very much to Robhyndman.com, where I discovered the link to the Times article.

7 Replies to “Facebook: job-hunting, non-invisibility, and the creepiness factor”

  1. Hello Professor Nathenson,

    I must first say that I genuinely enjoyed Legal Process in Fall ’05. It is a crime that you won’t be at Pitt Law any longer. I was looking forward to taking an IP class from you. I wish you the best of luck at St. Thomas!

    Do you think that the “trolling” of these sites could ever play a part in the admissions process (law, undergrad, etc.)? Personal lifestyle choices might not be as relevant in the admissions process as they are in private employment. However, since “holistic” file review seems to be the norm, might “red flags” play a part in this context?

  2. To respond to Matt’s comment, rumor has it that adcoms from many schools now troll sites like xoxohth.com and lawschooldiscussion.com to identify ‘problem’ posters who have applied to their schools. They are also able to cross-check what they find on these message board sites with info posted on lawschoolnumbers.com to confirm identities.

    And because sites like archive.com will eventually have the entire web memorialized at specific points in [soon-to-be] history, it is even more dangerous to assume that one is ever ‘anonymous’ on the Internet.

    Prof. Nathenson, I like your blog! Congrats with the St. Paul position.

  3. Matt and Josh:

    Thanks for the kind words and good wishes.

    As you already recognize, it’s prudent to assume that anything you ever post will be archived somewhere. I don’t know how the admissions procedures work at Pitt or elsewhere and am not involved in them, so I just don’t know whether viewing of student sites or other sites is done as part of the admissions process. I do wonder, though, whether it’s practicable to spend the time looking up large numbers of applicants on websites. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t done somewhere. Also, in tune with what Matt suggests, it makes sense that it’s quite possible that what might be a red flag to a college may not necessarily be as broad as what might concern a potential employer. But of course, today’s high school student is tomorrow’s college student and the next day’s job applicant, so all those postings might ultimately hit you back in the face.

    Along those lines, readers should check out Matt’s thoughtful comments about the importance of proactively sculpting an online persona at his excellent ShadyLawPodcast blog at http://shadylaw.com/?p=145.

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