Today we have a guest editorial from Tim Mitchell as Steve is on holiday. This editorial was originally published on 19 Apr 2012.
We've all heard it, and probably all said it ourselves. "You should [or shouldn't] do something, because it will be a part of your permanent record."
Don't skip out on class, because a bad grade will permanently taint your transcript.
Don't break the law, because a criminal conviction will haunt you forever.
Pay all of your bills on time, otherwise your credit will suffer for many years to come.
Reasonable people are cautious about all of these, taking minimal risk of staining these structured permanent records. However, those same people often play it fast and loose when it comes to the 21st century permanent record: social media.
The First Stop
This new permanent record is quickly becoming the first metric used to evaluate others. Consider the logistics of learning about someone you don't currently know: You can employ a background check vendor to verify a person's residence, criminal history, and other traditional data. Hopefully all of these steps are still done in cases where offers of employment, child safety, and business dealings are involved. However, all of this takes time and money to do, and nobody wants to waste time on these invasive and costly queries unless reasonably sure that the candidate/vendor/potential partner may be a good fit. So what's the first stop to evaluate whether to pursue the relationship? Social media, of course. It's cheap, quick, and easy, and is often more revealing of character than whether a person has a felony conviction or got an F in a college class a decade ago.
Hiding in plain sight
So you've got your corner of cyberspace locked down - your Twitter account is protected and your Facebook content is filtered by group. Or perhaps you're relying on security by obscurity, keeping your musings on the down low so as not to attract attention. This means you're free to rant all you want, right?
Social media content protection is a good thing, and allows the selective sharing of details with only certain people. However, these protections should not be considered a license to post rants without regard to who might read them. Let's say that an unhappy employee creates a Facebook group that includes everyone except the people he works with, and he posts his rants about his employer to that group. Although those settings offer protection against the content being viewed directly by the excluded parties, but they could still learn of it indirectly. Perhaps they're friends of a friend, and that friend shares details of the rant. Further, it's not unheard of for people to fraudulently "friend" or "follow" people under a fake account just for the purposes of monitoring that person's activities.
Security by obscurity only goes so far. Even if one privately rants on a blog, perhaps even using a pseudonym, eventually enough details could leak out to reveal the identity of the poster. Got a password on that flaming blog post? It could still be shared by others, or read by the fraudulent "friend" mentioned above.
It's true that, as a content owner, one can delete most any message posted in a blog, Tweet, or Facebook post. But just because it's been deleted doesn't mean it's really gone. Write an inappropriate blog post about a client, and it could still be present in blog readers (especially offline readers) even if it's later deleted or changed. One could post and then delete an inflammatory tweet about a peer, but various services have come and gone that give others the ability to read a person's deleted tweets. Further, social media tools make it easy to share the content of others, and a deleted tweet doesn't remove any retweets of that content by others. And even if the deletion manages to bypass all of these content retention methods, there's still the old-fashioned screen capture, in which someone could store a digital image of wayward statements.
The bottom line is that social media does have an Undo button, but it's not a guarantee that the digital trail is gone. And like all digital data on the Internet, social media data has the potential for sticking around for a really, really long time.
A growing number of employers report that they check an applicant's social media feeds as part of the evaluation process.
The Internet is written in ink, not pencil
Don't steal. Pay your bills. Do well in school. And just as importantly, consider the permanence of anything you post on the Internet.