Your Private (Public) Online Life

by Justin Bell
It’s now possible for anyone-including your employer- to find out far more about you than you might suspect. Stacey Snyder found this out the hard way after Millersville University denied her a teaching degree, thanks to an incriminating picture posted on her MySpace page. The picture? Actually, a rather inoffensive photo of Snyder (apparently at a Halloween party), wearing a pirate hat and sipping from a plastic yellow cup. The caption reads “drunken pirate” and this was apparently enough to keep her from being allowed to teach at a high school where she had been hired, or to keep her teaching degree once the school’s staff discovered it.
Unfortunately, this is no isolated case. Employers (especially in government and the educational industry) often build “morality clauses” into contracts, where the employee agrees not to do anything to damage the reputation of the company, but not since the early 20th century have they taken such an interest in the private lives of their workers. With the internet at their disposal, employers are more likely than ever before to try policing what you do outside of work. That fact tends to worry people, and the State of Florida (like most other states) has no laws to protect employees from such snooping. In light of this, here are a few pieces of advice that can help keep you from running into sticky situations with the people you work for.
First, know this: if you have a MySpace, LiveJournal, or Facebook page, then anyone who wants to can go there and read up on you. Often times, your employer will do just that. A recent study by the Pew Internet Project (PIP) found that a large group of internet users (43%) don’t think or care about how they look to other people on the Web. According to the PIP study, everyone leaves a “Digital Footprint” on the internet. When you use the internet, little traces get left behind, whether they be posts on message boards, blog entries, or pictures you’ve put up on a MySpace profile. It’s a network of details that you add to with every move you make in cyberspace. And if anyone wants to, they can put these things together and find out a lot about you.
To make sure your Web-self doesn’t trip you up in the real world, try following these simple suggestions:
1. To start with, find out what’s actually there: Google yourself. In the PIP study, they found that 60% of people who did this came up with accurate information. It’s what your employer will probably try first.
2. If you find anything that you wouldn’t want your employer to see, get rid of it! Delete that angry message board post and take down those embarrassing pictures from your MySpace page.
3. If you do have a page on any social networking sites, you can go even further by making sure that it’s only visible to your friends. The less public you are with your online journal, the less likely it is that your employer will see anything they don’t like.
4. Finally, and most importantly, be selective. This is implied by the previous points, but it bears repeating: be conscious that anything you do on the internet is potentially public. If you have a web page under your own name, don’t say anything inflammatory on it, and don’t let anyone you know post a Snyder-like picture of you. You’re not anonymous on the Web. It’s a public forum, so don’t say anything that you wouldn’t want your employer, or your mother to hear-because they might well.
In the end, remember that you are the guardian of how you appear on the internet. As long as you’re smart and selective with what you allow to see the light of day, you should have nothing to fear from the Web and the way it represents you to your employer.