A Hostage Situation? Blurring Lines Between the Personal and Professional in Social Media

Posted on July 20, 2010 in Opinion

One of the most important and hot-button topics right now in debates about social media is how one’s online persona and behaviour or contribution to online discourse through social media vehicles like Facebook, Twitter and the like can have a negative impact on one’s professional reputation.  There are already plenty of reported cases where people were fired from jobs, or explicitly not hired for jobs, because of things they said or did on social networking websites, or because of things that turned up in a Google search for their name.  In fact, some companies have become so paranoid about potential employee sabotage or slander going viral through social media that they are now instituting policies making it mandatory for employees to submit their online personas to unfettered employer scrutiny, or risk being dismissed.

I do understand where companies are coming from.  As the recent Domino’s Pizza fiasco taught us, it doesn’t take much for a couple of low-level employees with a digital video camera, a YouTube account and a grudge to undo years of expensive public relations and marketing efforts using good old fashioned slander.  It isn’t unreasonable for an employer to expect its employees to demonstrate respect and professionalism vis a vis the company when using social media, or to want to keep tabs on what their employees say about the company on social networking websites.  What troubles me, though, is how much we as a society seem willing to forfeit personal freedom of expression to satisfy our current and potential employers.

Before social media became ubiquitous, it was easy to establish boundaries between one’s personal life and one’s professional persona.  Your behaviour and performance on the job was of concern to your employer, but when you clocked out, you were free to live as you choose.  When being considered for a new job, your qualifications and professional references were of concern to the hiring company, but how you chose to conduct yourself outside of that purview was not.  All of that has changed.  These days, if a hiring manager Googles you and finds out that you’re pregnant, or you’re gay, or you got drunk and put your underwear on your head at a bachelor party, or you support a differing political party, or you hate their favourite TV show, they can throw your resume in the shredder, no questions asked.  Obviously if someone is looking to hire you nowadays, you’re going to get Googled, it is just naive to think otherwise.  At the same time, it is important to recognize that there is absolutely no system of checks and balances in place to ensure that a lone recruiter, manager or HR person sitting alone in her/his office reviewing candidates isn’t crossing the line by allowing their own prejudices to become the basis for whether or not you are considered.

This issue is a difficult one for me, largely because I have a HUGE and LONG-RUNNING online footprint.  I’ve been on this wagon for 15 years.  Before blogs and amazing code packages like WordPress, people who wanted to be part of online culture and plant their flag had homepages.  I had a homepage, first on the University of Alberta server, and then at a .com.  I basically hand-coded all of that shit line by line and taught myself HTML and graphic design in the process while I was doing my degree in English Lit.  In fact, you can still dig up a PDF copy of the University of Alberta graduate student magazine Folio that featured a blurb about me from 1999!!!!  (I’m on Page 2) 11 fucking years ago!!!!  And yes, I just dropped an f-bomb, even though *that* might turn up in a Google search someday and someone might not like it.  Because that’s who I am.

So yeah, anyway, I have basically been going “look at me, look at me!” on the Internet since 1995. I posted my poetry and opinions and goings on in my life and photos and whatever out there for the world to see.  I was kicking it old skool before anyone ever heard of Facebook.  I’m not trying to sound high on myself, I’m just saying.  I never came up with any amazing ideas like the people who got rich off social networking, but I’m sure as hell wired to use the shit out of it.  I just can’t even imagine a world where I don’t go online and tell and show everyone EXACTLY what is going on with me.

Recently, one of my Twitter people suggested that my bio there was unsuitable for Google in terms of getting clients as a contractor.  The funny thing is the story behind it.  I used to work with a girl who didn’t like me very much because of my homepage.  She used to leave “Anonymous” posts on my guestbook (because homepages had guestbooks, not Walls … it all seems so quaint now … in fact you can probably still find that on Google if you try really hard) telling me how much she hated me.  The last one she ever left read “You are the bitchiest, most self-absorbed person I’ve ever met, and you need a visit to Jenny Craig.”  Finally I had enough, so I traced the IP address.  When I discovered it came from our OFFICE NETWORK, it didn’t take me long to figure out who was responsible.  I tracked her straight to her terminal.  Because surprise, I’m not a fucking moron.  When I confronted her, she blew me off, but then at the end of the day swallowed her pride and apologized because she knew I had her by the ovaries, claiming she figured I knew it was her the whole time.  Now, ten years later, I still wear her insult as a badge of honour.

I recently departed the corporate sector partly because I realized that I cannot handle being held back by what my colleagues might find out about me on the Internet, or my Internet usage habits.  There’s just way too much out there, and I’m way too entrenched in it.  For example, I run a website with a blasphemous domain name that declares a TV character as my personal saviour.  Anyone who reads the site knows the whole thing is a massive inside joke that exploded into a 6 year website project, and functioned as a place where I could masturbate my English Degree, but short-sighted people might see it as a sign of someone not quite mentally balanced.  I also swear a lot on it, which might cause a potential employers or clients to assume I am unprofessional or unintelligent or without any class (all incorrect).  The truth is, that project got me where I am today in terms of my career as a website developer.  Everything I know today was built on the foundation of that project.

Had I remained in a corporate position, I would never have started the 2 Hostile Bitches vlogging project with Karyn.  There is just no way.  But I can tell anyone who is actually reading this one thing, I have been a lot happier working on that and teaching myself guerilla video production than I was submitting the simplest revisions and online promo graphics through 3 different bosses and having my every move and every click tracked and monitored every second of every day.  In fact, the vlog will likely become a Google problem for me, because I put videos of myself talking about sex and masturbating and feminist issues and things that make me angry on the Internet, and some people won’t like that and won’t think it’s professional.  Is that enough to make me quit?  Are you kidding?

Anyway, I digress.  My point with all this is that being a part of online culture, and being MYSELF in that culture, has been a crucial part of my life for a decade and a half.  It is my life.  For me, the idea of rolling it all up and throwing the digital equivalent of bleach on it is just not an option.

I do understand the argument of the personal responsibility crowd.  You know … “you are responsible for everything you put out there about yourself on the Internet and should prepare to be judged by absolutely anyone you encounter in your career because of it.”  OK.  I get that that’s mostly the way it is right now, and the need to play by the rules, and so on.  But just because we can, it doesn’t mean we should.

So if people Google me right now, what will they find out?

They’ll find out about my professional career.  They’ll also find out I am starting a media & design business called CodeWord.  They’ll find out that my byline on Twitter sarcastically describes me as the bitchiest, most self-absorbed person you’ve ever met.  They’ll find out that I run a blog as a wannabe TV critic.  And that I can be really snarky.  They’ll find out that I’m on Empire Avenue.  They’ll find out I have a profile on getafreelancer.com from 2006.  And a whole bunch of other stuff I can no longer keep track of, including a review of the most horrific Denny’s experience of my life on a website exclusively devoted to Denny’s reviews!  And the truth is that I am proud of all of these things.

I guess my point with all this is that I think blackballing somebody as an employee, or a contractor, or whatever the case may be because they said something on the Internet that you didn’t like at some point in time is a bit obtuse.  It’s gotten to a point where people feel a legitimate need to mitigate and analyze everything they say or do online for fear that it will come back to haunt them at some undefined point in the future.  And in a world where digital communication is becoming more entrenched every single day, we are pushing personal expression out of the public sphere the more we give in to whitewashing our public lives.  And our right to personal expression online is being held hostage by the possible opinion of those who control our paychecks.

I fully understand that not everyone is comfortable with publicizing their personal lives, and I absolutely believe that everyone has a right to protect their privacy and keep their personal life offline.  But I still feel that for those who want to express themselves on a personal level online, they should be free to do that — without hiding behind a handle — without every prospective employer they may ever face in the future being able to use it against them.  People are multi-faceted.  This is common sense.  It’s willful oversimplification to assume there is no such thing as context anymore.

These are uncertain economic times.  People are desperate to find and keep jobs, and this gives employers a great deal of power.  We are living in dangerous days when employers can fire staff for things they did off the clock and posted off the clock on their Facebook profile because it is not “representative of the company’s image.”  I advocate that employees learn and use the privacy settings to their maximum potential on their social networking profiles to keep employers out of their affairs. I also advocate that employers remind themselves once in awhile that their employees are people, and that people are always much more than just what you can find out about them online.

So where does that leave me?  Well, in these uncertain economic times I have jumped head first into the deep end trying to become self-employed.  So what will potential clients find out when they Google me?  On one hand, they might decide that I’m unprofessional, imbalanced, foul-mouthed, angry and promiscuous.  On the other hand, they might decide that I’m a strong designer, a competent developer, social media savvy, a passionate personality, a talented writer, a no-bullshit straight shooter, and an educated intellectual.  It’s all about perspective.  So while my Google results probably won’t appeal much to conservative corporate clientele, at the end of the day, I still truly believe there is a niche for me where I can pursue the online projects and the personas I am passionate about while still making a living designing kick-ass website for clients that will appreciate my approach, aesthetic, skills, dedication and experience.