The Double-Edged Sword Of Social Media

As an Internet marketing professional, I love the power, influence, and reach that social media has to offer. Online venues such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ enable a level of instant human outreach that is unparalleled in history.

For example, if you are a fan of a TV, movie, music or sports celebrity, your ability to interact with that person (or at least see them outside of their normal context) is fascinating. Social media enables us to easily find long lost friends, old flames, and remote cousins you never knew you had through the Internet, and renew relationships with these people.

Best of all, at least for my business, if you are a brand name, be it a large company (or perhaps just a small one looking to make it big), you can have direct, personal interactions with both existing and potential new customers that the Mad Men of yore could only dream of.

Social media enables businesses to promote their products, encourage brand and company loyalty, cross-sell new company products to existing customers, and generally be there for them when they want to find you (via search on social channels). It’s really an amazing phenomenon.

Best yet, the proliferation of online mobile devices, such as laptops, tablets, and smartphones, in addition to the ubiquitous desktop Web browsers, are all new opportunities for companies and customers to find one another, communicate, inform each other of your wants and needs, and find fulfillment! It’s nothing short of nirvana, right?

Not So Fast

That all said, ask me about my Twitter account. I have one, sure, but I pretty much only use it to communicate with my professional peers, inform those who might be interested when I publish a new blog post, and really not much else.

Unlike many Twitter users, I don’t tweet about the difficult decision I had to make this morning choosing between oatmeal and scrambled eggs for breakfast. I skip telling the world I am checking in at Bruno’s Bail Bonds (again!). I don’t take 10,000 phone pictures of myself and post them as tweets (I know what you’re thinking – and you’re welcome!).

And how about me on Facebook? Yeah, I have a Facebook account as well, but it’s locked down as tight as a drum. There’s nothing there about me to see, anyway. I pretty much only use it to administer the controls, settings and posts of several Fan pages I manage.

Am I a social media snob? No, far from it. I certainly see the value of regularly communicating with friends and family. But I have my reasons for my reticence.

Waiting For Something To Say

Part of my reluctance goes back to why I never jumped into the personal blogging fad that was so popular in the late 1990s/early 2000s. I never felt that my personal daily thoughts, random utterances, or really anything else that had to say was so important that everyone would wait with bated breath to see my next post. Perhaps I was afraid to trust my words and thoughts would be popular on their own merit just to have those dreams dashed in the empty anonymity of the Web.

When I got into the world of SEO several years ago, I was initially pushed into blogging, and even then, I only got into it when I felt I had something professionally helpful to say. Of course, my previous careers as a tech writer and, before that, an instructor of technology courses, helped shape my approach to writing for public audiences.

But beyond the nagging self-doubt that no one would care was the more pressing reality of the danger of unbridled transparency – the intentional abandonment of privacy. Not that I have anything in particular to hide, but some things are better left unsaid. There’s a wise, old axiom that goes, “It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.”

Confirming The Fool

Call it the Cisco Fatty Syndrome. Do you remember the Cisco Fatty incident? I very much do (as I love learning life lessons vicariously). It seems there was this very promising young woman who was fresh out of college and looking for work in Silicon Valley. This was back in 2009, long after the Dot Com heyday had passed. The economy was in serious trouble, and the job-seekers market of yore had become an employer’s market.

Apparently our protagonist had the credentials and the interview skills to be offered a starting job at Cisco. It was apparently a well-paying position (at least relatively), but unfortunately not the glamorous role she was envisioning she’d get coming out of college. So she was torn about whether she should settle for the steady, well-paying but mundane job or continue looking for her dream role.

We’ve all be in this situation, more or less, haven’t we? Do you settle, or do you keep looking? It’s always a hard decision every time. But there’s a difference here.

While most of us old enough to remember the days before social media was big went through this conundrum by speaking face-to-face to our trusted confidants, our 2009 college graduate was a modern child of the social media age. She tweeted her dilemma. For all to see. To the Internet. Where things never die. Ah, to be so young and innocent again.

She tweeted, “Cisco just offered me a job! Now I have to weigh the utility of a fatty paycheck against the daily commute to San Jose and hating the work.” She sent that message unencumbered by restrictions, security, or any sort of public access limitations.

And wouldn’t you know, the ever-present, self-appointed, vigilante Netizens Justice League made dang sure that this student’s identity and indiscreet tweet became known to all (there were even websites created about this little folly). And of course, someone working at Cisco quickly got wind of that tweet, and it was forwarded on within the company. Needless to say, her dilemma was solved for her. Some of the above story details are still in dispute, but you get the picture.

Double-edged Nature Of Social Media

But truth be told, this is far from an isolated incident. And this is the troubling, double-edged sword that is social media. Sending a letter to the editor is a private person reaching out to communicate in a public venue. But that private person reaching out to communicate with personal friends is not meant for public consumption.

Unfortunately for so many, though, it still is when it involves the Internet. Tweets, Facebook posts and even blog articles (oh the horror!) are all publicly accessible (and searchable) communications. At least they should always be written with the assumption that they will become public (because they often do).

I see so many young people today (and a great many not so young) who are careless, if not simply reckless, with what they say, do and post online. They may think they are clever, witty, and that they pwn3d someone good. They post embarrassing if not humiliating photos and comments about family members, friends, co-workers, and often, of even themselves online. How many teachers have been publicly fired over posting Facebook photos of themselves getting a little too loose at a weekend keg party?

Facebook Scores

Facebook Mobile Web and App IconPublic embarrassment is one thing, but I submit we need to start thinking about our personal online reputations as we do our credit scores. We all know that our credit scores can influence whether we are approved for loans and credit cards, but do you know these scores also influence our ability to get approval for an apartment lease, to be hired in a new job, or the cost of our insurance rates?

So if HR departments can pull credit scores to help determine whether a job applicant is trustworthy and has sound judgment, doesn’t it make sense that they would do a Web search on an applicant’s name to see what sort of person they are online? It’s already happening. The Wall Street Journal recently wrote that Facebook profiles can predict future job performance. In fact, there’s apparently now a Facebook score for assessing employee candidates!

The way I see it, while some online citations can be positive (which is why I like the power of recommendations in a LinkedIn profile), HR is likely using searches in Facebook, Twitter, and other information online to find reasons to not hire a person. If you worked in HR, wouldn’t you use all the tools at your disposal to verify whether an individual is a good risk for hiring?

In the case of not opening one’s mouth to confirm one’s idiocy, having no reckless, self-published information online, or at the very minimum, a well-managed and professional online reputation in social media, can be a major factor in making or breaking a career, especially a new one.

The Illusion Of Privacy

Don’t be fooled into complacency by thinking you’ve got all of your hilariously raunchy bits hidden behind privacy settings that only friends can access. Facebook has earned a reputation for adjusting privacy settings on us.

But more importantly, MSNBC recently reported that many official entities, such as some government agencies and potential employers are now either asking for Facebook usernames and passwords or, in the case of some colleges, requiring that students friend a school official to enable account monitoring when people are accepted for admission.

Even if that doesn’t specifically happen in your next new job, how will you handle it when your new boss or a nosy colleague wants to friend you in Facebook? Are you comfortable with the potential consequences of declining their request, or do you open the privacy doors to your, well, sullied online past?

Privacy has, in many ways, become a thing of the past, but do we really have to spoonfeed the haters with our ample, self-published evidence of our less than perfect online past?

A Facebooked Generation

The young people today (and I mean those who are not yet adults) who use Facebook as a means of rudely and lewdly boasting, taunting, bullying, lying, and hurting others are effectively dumping online rat poison into the nascent body of their careers-to-be. We are potentially raising a generation of pre-screened, self-inflicted failures.

Yes, we can say, “Hey, they were just kids, they weren’t grown up yet, so cut them some slack.” But would you hire a young person with a criminal past, especially when they are competing with others who led quiet, dull, and crime-free childhoods? That’s an act of indiscretion that reflects one’s poor judgment, but so is an offensive, expletive-laced rant or a risqué photograph. Most criminal records are wiped clean at age 18, but the Internet offers no such promise. All of the regrettable things said and done that were published are always going to be there, searchable online.

As I said earlier, I think social media is an amazing opportunity for people to interact. But it can be very revealing as well.

A lack of maturity mixed with the eternity of Internet posts is a career time bomb waiting to go off. Before we end up with a generation of self-inflicted, black-balled job applicants, let those of us in the social media marketing field help everyone else understand that you can use social media wisely or foolishly. Competition for good opportunities is hard enough these days. There’s no benefit in shooting yourself in the foot forever.

As online privacy evaporates for us all, our words and actions represent us to people who initially have no other way of judging us. Our reputations are formed by our deeds, good and bad. Yes, we are all imperfect beings and we all make mistakes. But let’s not publicize them on social media, OK?

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Social | Search & Social | Social Media Marketing

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About The Author: is an in-house SEO at MSN.com, and was previously part of Microsoft’s Live Search and Bing Webmaster Center teams, serving as the primary contributor to the Bing Webmaster Center blog and then later as an in-house SEO for the Bing content properties. He also randomly adds to his own blog, The SEO Ace.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | Google+ | LinkedIn



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  • Shawn Lippert

    Yes you can cut the kids some slack, kids will be kids, maybe when companies are checking out potential employees they should only go as far back as the legal age for adulthood.When posting something online I use the assumption of ” If i were in public would I let the next person in line know about something that happened to me and is it appropriate ?” To post or not to post? Good article!

  • http://twitter.com/RedHotWebsites Red Hot Websites

    I’m a 42 year old, self employed, father of two young girls. I post some funny and slightly off-colour comments, but that’s my character.

    My rule of thumb when posting to Facebook, Twiiter, Linkedin etc is “Would I be happy for my mum (who is my friend on FB) or kids to see this?” If the answer’s no, I don’t post.

  • http://roshanjoshi.com.np Roshan

    Agree with some points of the writer as I am also less active on Facebook & more so on some other social platform. But closing eyes doesn’t mean light is not there! The sword is already there – go play smart. Also, from professional point of view it makes best sense to mention that your personal content are not endorsed by organizational, or vice-versa.

  • http://twitter.com/sharithurow sharithurow

    More proof that social media as a signal is not necessarily the best “signal” to search engines. Popularity (or lack thereof) does not mean that the information presented is valid and/or factual. 

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  • http://www.yellowyellow.co.in/ Hari Kumar

    The rate of conversion and the number of conversions of the visitors can not be monitored through social media. apart from that everything ok about marketing through social media. after all we can not ignore the population on social media.

  • rquappe

    I agree, but depends of how wild or relaxed are our mums and what kind of language we use with our kids in a daily basis.
    Also, it isn’t just what we say online. It is how we say it what finally matters.

 

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