One click. One click can mean the difference between the job of your dreams and not being able to pay the rent. One click can mean the difference between casually surfing the Internet and being harassed constantly by advertisers. This is the reality of the new media age, an age of information distribution that goes beyond anything ever seen before.
So how do you protect yourself?
That profile picture from your friend’s birthday party where you had a little too much to drink, that product you “liked’ on Facebook and even your tweet about a news story you read that day, these are all pieces of information that may come back to haunt you. Here are a few pieces of advice to keep you and your information safe as you tweet, post, and make use of the newest technologies in social media.
Remember: once it is online, it is online forever.
“Once a piece information is out there, it is out there, in all sorts of endless and indefinite ways,” Dr. Kenneth Werbin, a professor of contemporary studies and journalism at the Brantford campus of Wilfrid Laurier University, wrote in an email.
Every post is a piece of digital information and even though you may feel it is appropriate to write that blonde joke on your friend’s wall, or tweet a rant about your past employer, these things will never go away.
“People need to think beyond the conveniences of social media,” Werbin wrote. “And always remember that trying to change or delete a piece of posted information is akin to trying to shovel an avalanche back up a mountain.”
The emphasis on permanence was reinforced by social media strategist Michael McCready who wrote, “the Internet never forgets. There is no delete button for online content.”
The detailed nature of this information has also expanded as technology has evolved, according to assistant professor in education at Concordia and social media expert Dr. Anne-Louise Davidson.
“With all the smartphone applications, we can now leave a digital trace of where we were when we did x posting or when we used x application,” she wrote. “That’s powerful information for our government and for businesses.”
Consequently, Davidson advises that people remember everything online is digitized, and “by definition, can be recorded and analyzed.”
Monitor yourself: only post things you don’t mind anyone seeing, including your boss
Along with the permanence of your online footprint, the information you add to social media sites is also widely accessible.
The expert advice is simple: don’t share everything with everyone. For Davidson, this means not writing anything online you wouldn’t mind having published in a newspaper.
One of the best illustrations of how social media makes your information available, is that these websites act as an entirely new forum for employers to check out job candidates.
While acknowledging the great opportunities presented by social media platforms like Facebook, McCready said “these great benefits could come at a cost – your career or future opportunities. Inappropriate usage of social media has cost the careers of many people.”
Davidson also addressed employment, stating “People don’t realize that what is online is public and people will go and look you up online. That’s the first thing many employers do.”
Considering the possible consequences on future employment, people should monitor their posts and seriously consider the implications of everything they share online.
“Messages or tweets on Twitter can easily be taken out of context because of the 140 character limitation,” McCready said. He offered the example of Octavia Nasr, a 20-year veteran journalist fired by CNN based on a tweet she made. She tweeted that she was “sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Muhammad Hussein Fadl-Allah … One of Hezbollah’s giants,” who she added she greatly respected. The comment reportedly angered supporters of Israel and cost Nasr her career.
This isn’t limited to written content, either. Candid or incriminating photos may hamper your chance at a job as well. “When I look at some photos people put online, ouch!” Davidson said. “This is the digital shadow that will follow them for years and they don’t realize it.”
Platforms like Facebook also allow friends to bypass your discretion and post information about you for the world to see. For this reason, McCready also advised caution in accepting friend requests.
“Only accept friend requests on Facebook from people you really know,” he wrote. “Once they are your friend, they can post to your wall, tag you in photos, etc. The outcome could be very negative if you don’t really know them well.”
To guard against this, Davidson said some people take the option of not using their real identity. “It could be a matter of nickname, but it could also be a matter of taking a different identity altogether.”*
Pay attention to user license agreements.
Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter all have license agreements, which outline your rights as a user, as well as the website’s right to use your information. No matter how tedious it may seem, these are definitely worth a read.
“I would advise students that if they don’t value their privacy, they will lose it as a right,” Werbin wrote. “Valuing privacy means paying attention to end-user license agreements and making informed and critical decisions regarding the kinds of information that one chooses to post on social media platforms.”
To illustrate this point, Facebook’s license agreement forces users to accept that you grant them “a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook.” In layman’s terms, they have the right to use absolutely anything you post on the site, and although you can make a few adjustments in your privacy settings, this is essentially impossible to avoid.
Facebook can also “change how they work without notice,” McCready said, adding that you should check these agreements regularly.
Despite the intimidating nature of information circulation on these platforms, it is important to remember that, when used intelligently, they can be extremely useful tools. This article illustrates this fact, as all interviews were conducted online, via email and other Internet tools like typewith.me, a site which could be considered social media as it allows more than one user to contribute to and edit the same document.
Ultimately, the main message of all this advice is to be cautious. In the 18th century Benjamin Franklin said “distrust and caution are the parents of security.” In the 20th century, as you sit in front of your computer with Facebook open, tweeting to your friends from your Blackberry, these words may have taken on a new context, but they remain as accurate as ever.
*Correction (Nov. 9, 2010): This sentence incorrectly stated that Ann-Louise Davidson would advise people to change their identity online. Davidson points out that people take on different identities, and that people should be aware of this, but she does not advise this. The Concordian regrets the error.