Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Privacy--or not--on the Internet

Although we've had many, many instances of people getting into trouble because of things they've posted online, we still haven't figured out where, exactly, to draw the line. Three separate incidents in the last week have me thinking about the issue more closely. First, at my own institution, there was an incident involving a party posting on Facebook that ultimately resulted in a Student Government officer being impeached and going home for the rest of the semester, perhaps never to return. Do a Google search and you can find out a little more. Many have said that the SGA officer, though wrong, was unfairly raked over the coals even after she apologized, raising the question of how much is enough, especially when the whole incident will live on the Internet perhaps for many years to come.

Another, similar incident, was first brought to my attention by Bitch, Ph.D. and then elaborated on by Janet at Adventures in Ethics and Science. A law student who administered an online bulletin board for other law students recently had a job rescinded because he refused to curb the harassment of female law students on the board. While many feel he deserved to lose a job over the incident, some have questioned how much one's off-work statements and actions should affect your job.

A similar incident occurred with a Millersville University student who was denied her teaching certificate because of a single MySpace photo captioned "Drunken Pirate."

While I definitely feel that when blogging or posting online, one has to be aware that everything can be seen by current and future employers, I think employers should be a little more thoughtful about how they consider such postings. If one finds pictures of a future employee online showing him or her drunk, does that automatically eliminate them from consideration? Shouldn't one balance that with other information? Many people get drunk on occasion and increasingly, those incidents are documented and posted, often because they want to share the rare occurrence with friends. If an employer is concerned, maybe they should call references or ask the future employee directly.

Some may respond to such incidents by only venturing online under a pseudonym or not venturing online at all, but I think increasingly, people want an online presence that's going to include many facets of their lives and personalities. And I think eventually, employers may have to learn to sift through information about people they find online more thoughtfully.

My suggestion for the student at my own institution whose mistake lives online in the student newspaper and Facebook: control your online presence, create a blog highlighting your accomplishments, write positively and move that presence above the other one. Sure, future employers may find the old mistake living in the Internet archive, but if everything else they find is positive, it's going to be greatly minimized and maybe not even an issue.