Disagreements between society’s “old” and “young” are nothing new. And one of the many debates that fall in this realm is what’s deemed “acceptable” and “unacceptable” to post on Facebook, Twitter, and any other social network site (SNS) on which potential employers can find you.
Marty DeFrancesco of N.C. State University’s Technician addresses this issue in “Students and employers disagree on what’s appropriate for social media.” He explains the cliché of job-seeker horror stories coming to life when employers discover their illicit Facebook histories. Intertwined with these experiences are student opinions that, in fact, such negative social media content does not necessarily define them in a work sense. A recent N.C. State study backs up this statement, bringing to light that discerning online identity isn’t that easy.
The topic at hand is a pivotal example of Alice Marwick and Danah Boyd’s “context collapse.” The study found that questionable (or even clean) Facebook behaviors don’t denote a specific type of employee. For example, photographs with alcohol in the background could allude to a person’s social nature, an admirable trait in the work world! The portrayal of drinking is tricky when veering between contexts – conveyed as “cool” to friends but “reckless” to employers. This study tries to show that there doesn’t have to be such an extreme discrepancy between the two.
While Marwick and Boyd specifically focus on Twitter in “I Tweet Honestly, I Tweet Passionately: Twitter Users, Context Collapse, and the Imagined Audience,” their concept of the “ideal reader” can be applied to just about any SNS. Students are often criticized for not being as conscientious as Marwick and Boyd suggest: It is necessary to consider all potential audiences before posting anything, knowing you are watched like prisoners in a panopticon. The lack of this consideration has caused 69% of employers to reject applicants based on SNS activity, according to a CNN poll. To avoid becoming a statistic requires deliberate self-censorship, imagining the “nightmare reader” (such as a potential boss), and using technical affordances such as privacy settings.
Persona founder and CEO Lee Sherman argues that social media can be taken advantage of by job-seekers, if used correctly. Nancy Baym’s social discourses in new media reinforce his suggestion as an example of “social shaping.” Employers are going to look, so why not make use of it instead of fearing technology like a technological determinist? Obviously SNSs have yet to be domesticated, seeing as we’re still talking about their looming influence on our future lives. By using technological affordances like privacy control and social processes like being conscientious of posted material, this problem can be solved… anyway, that’s what Sherman would claim. But I think Baym wouldn’t think it’s that easy. Even with all the “right” pictures and statuses, the human element of social cues is missing, providing only a limited description of a potential employee. And emoticons have yet to be invented that overtly exemplify a person’s ability to multi-task or work well in groups.
Continuing from Baym’s rebuttal to the solution of creating a “proper” online identity is Sandra Weber and Claudia Mitchell’s theory of “identities-in-action” in “Imaging, Keyboarding, and Posting Identities: Young People and New Media Technologies.” To illustrate this concept of identities always in flux, let’s say you do get your act together online. Still, much like the unpredictability of the wild child’s people skills being an asset to a company, companies never know what they’ll get… now or a few months down the line. Our online stories are nonlinear, multi-voiced, and vary from site to site. It’s virtually impossible to understand one’s concrete identity based on the context collapses that happen simply hopping between SNSs. Someone who is considered employable on Facebook may very well not be on Twitter. And that’s just one’s online identity.
One last critique brings me to Sherman’s quote, “Employers hire people they like and want to spend time with,” coupled with student Christian Solorzano’s apathetic opinion on employers’ SNS judgments: “Maybe that helps align like-thinkers to companies they are most compatible with.” With Hugo Liu’s “Social Network Profiles as Taste Performances” in mind, I wonder if recruiters only look for “good” versus “bad” content, or if they also look into people’s tastes to determine the right personality fit for their company. Liu lists four types of online taste statements: “prestige,” “differentiation,” “authenticity,” and “theatrical.” Depending on the company, recruiters may prefer one to another, like wanting someone who differentiates themselves instead of running with the crowd. DeFrancesco doesn’t mention the possibility of evaluating tastes on top of naughtiness, but this adds a whole other level of employer intimidation.
DeFrancesco outlines the issue well by providing meaningful statistics (57% of college students don’t think they have inappropriate material posted!) and interviews with students versus adult spokesperson Lee Sherman. The end of the article – which really tackled the issue of giving legitimacy to many students’ apathy to social media consequences – felt rushed, having spent so much time reiterating already-known facts (we get it, we should pay attention to what we do online). What drew me to this article was hope that, for once, the students could be right. I was partially satisfied at the very, very end, but left wanting. It could have used more concrete examples of how potential employees disprove employers’ SNS judgments.
I’m loyal to Facebook, but this course has exposed me to other SNSs like Twitter. Through “participant observation” and our readings, it’s clear that each SNS is used in a specific way according to its technological affordances and how we humans develop its context (“social shaping” again!). DeFrancesco focused mainly on Facebook and disregarded actual professional SNSs like LinkedIn. Is there a different set of rules for those? I sense that we’ve just scratched the surface.
To end on a simile: If Twitter is placed in a context separate from Facebook, then shouldn’t our identities as individuals be placed in a context separate from our identities as workers?