It has never been easier to get in trouble while catching up with friends.
Social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace are great ways to reconnect with old acquaintances and meet new ones.
But posts can be problems – the work rant you didn’t expect the boss to see, or the photos your old roommate posted that document your familiarity with keg stands.
In the past week:
•Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., Schools suspended an elementary schoolteacher who wrote on her Facebook page that she was teaching “in the most ghetto school in Charlotte.”
Four others were disciplined for postings that included sexually provocative photos of female teachers and a black male teacher who used a derogatory term in listing as an activity, “Chillin with my …”
•In Durham, N.C., two police officers were the subject of an internal investigation after derogatory remarks about President-elect Barack Obama were posted on their MySpace pages.
•A backup center on the University of Texas football team apologized for his “terrible decision” to post a racially offensive text message he received about Obama’s victory as a status update on his Facebook page.
The post by the player, Buck Burnette, suggested that hunters “gather up,” because a black man would be occupying the White House. Burnette was dismissed from the team.
More than 70 million users have registered online for Facebook accounts this year alone. With recent college graduates, older professionals and other adults flocking to the site, some are learning the hard lessons endured by teens and college students when they overshare online.
North Carolina State associate professor Sarah Stein teaches courses on digital media and researches the cultural and social implications of new technologies such as social network sites.
When it first emerged in 2004, Stein notes, Facebook was open only to college students, faculty and staff at a handful of academic institutions. In those first years, there was a sense among Facebook users that this was a very contained community where outsiders without a university e-mail account could not snoop.
“We can say about a 19-year-old it’s hard to project 20 years into the future … when you’d have an employer looking at (photos of) your half-nude body,” Stein says of the online postings by younger users.
“But to say the same thing about teachers who presumably are in their upper 20s and police officers in a similar age range – you’d expect their experiences would have given them a sense of restraint.”
Stein says people need to be educated on how public their information is on the Internet, regardless of any log-in requirements or privacy settings on a Web site.
Though many companies do not have the resources to monitor employees’ Facebook and MySpace postings, they are checking these sites as they screen potential hires.
Glenn Patton is a Duke University graduate and Atlanta-based partner with the Alston and Bird law firm, which specializes in labor and employment practice. He says many clients monitor social networking sites as part of the application process.
“People need to be particularly zealous, I think, to make sure that they’re making an appropriate appearance on their social networking sites,” he says.
“If they happen to find themselves between jobs or are out there actively looking, the chances are much greater that a prospective employer is going to be out there taking a look and trying to get a sense of what you’re about.”
Melynn Glusman, 36, offered similar advice to a young woman who recently came to her for advice on how to get a job at Duke, where Glusman works as a program coordinator for the Center for Documentary Studies.
“When I checked out her Facebook page, there were a lot of status updates about drinking and about how many beers she would drink,” says Glusman, who cautioned the woman to tone down the party-girl tone of her page.
Although Glusman does not have a complete ban on party photos, she says none of the photos on her page would fall into the category of raising the eyebrows of a work colleague or other friend.
The 11 photos in her “girls night out” Facebook album chronicling her bachelorette party feature feather boas, tiaras and the occasional martini, but there’s nothing that rises even to a PG-13 rating.
Clicking on a social networking site’s privacy setting to ensure that only specific people can view your page may increase peace of mind. But people such as Damon Circosta, 31, prefer to keep the privacy restrictions fairly low.
The director of policy for the N.C. Center for Voter Education, Circosta started using the site about a year ago to play “Scrabulous,” an online version of Scrabble. Today, he uses his page to network and broaden his professional contacts, as well as to brag about the political future of his 8-month-old son.
The best defense against people finding dirt on you online, he says, is not to provide any: “It’s always an exercise in keeping your life seamless, so that your online life will follow.”
Or if you’re Glenn Patton, the employment lawyer, you ignore the siren song of online friendship.
You will not find him on Facebook or MySpace, Patton says.
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