Every now and again certain scare stories raise their ugly heads and start breathing venomous fire over certain groups of people. I’m sure someone has done a study somewhere that looks into it. A few particularly persistent ones concern the use of online stuff like Facebook, Twitter, Blogs…etc etc etc ad naseum. Julia has a good take on why certain professions need to take a little more care over such things – discretion and common sense being amongst the best reasons.
Firstly let me state that I think that employers have no right to dictate what a person does or does not do with their spare time provided that those activities do not affect the employees ability to perform their duties. I find statements like ‘they must be a time waster because they have a blog’ to be outdated and narrow-minded. I could be a time waster and never turn the internet on.
You know there is a ‘but’ coming.
We have to be sensible here and there are certain professions (and equally for those aspiring to be in those professions) for which whatever-you-like online activity is not currently acceptable. Yes, blogging/twittering/facebooking is a great way of blowing off steam, relaxing, engaging with friends, but it is also permanent, cached and possibly searchable. Do you really want your comments to linger on beyond the 5 minutes where a message was relevant?
My personal take on this is that it is never appropriate to discuss students or colleagues in a manner that will identify them without their direct approval. Even when you try to obfuscate a little by not specifying gender, or muddling titles, it is often possible to identify the person that you are talking about, particularly if you blog/tweet/facebook in your own name.
For Facebook, I’d suggest taking the time necessary to work out the privacy settings and use them. Make sure that you have to give approval before people see what you post. It is possible to set things so that strangers can’t see the stupid drunken fancy dress dancing photos. When you start a new job and aren’t aware of the Facebook culture in the workplace (yes, news flash! You can expect there to be an attitude towards internet sites like Facebook that employees informally follow), wait and see before diving in and friending everyone in sight. There is nothing wrong with restricting what your work colleagues can see about you until you figure out how things work. Remember that brutal honesty may not be the best policy when potential clients/students/bosses can associate your name with their companies/institutions name.
For Twitter, I’d give serious thought to protecting tweets but accept that there are many reasons (open discussion being one of them) where that is restrictive and unnecessary. You also need to be aware that there are many many sites out there that tie together elements of your online life and package them ready for consumption – many of these operate without your permission [123people.co.uk springs to mind as an example]. If you need to keep things separate, use some pseudonyms. It isn’t deception, just good online persona management.
If you blog, blog carefully and consider how those you write about may view what you write. If you wouldn’t make certain comments directly to a student or colleague, how can they be appropriate for publishing to the rest of the world? On the other hand, you may be one of those people who has no problem at all with letting people know exactly what is on your mind. Perhaps you should consider the consequences of no ability to delete a post once cooler heads prevail. And perhaps you should check that your employer doesn’t have a problem with you talking about work related things. Many don’t, many don’t know enough to comment but some do for a variety of reasons that aren’t necessarily about restricting your freedom of expression. [As a side note, I often schedule posts that I write at the weekend to be automatically made public at times of the day that will get good traffic, this doesn’t mean I write them just before posting them.]
My only advice to students/job seekers is: POTENTIAL EMPLOYERS WILL GOOGLE APPLICANTS. Think about that one carefully and work out what you want them to find. Perhaps it would be appropriate to grab a free webpage from Google, spend a wee bit of time constructing something meaningful and well thought out that matches your career goals and ensuring that is the higher hit, not the head-hung-over-a-toilet pic. Perhaps it is time to have a vanity-googling session to work out what can be found!
Now, no one is trying to spoil anyone’s fun, but a bit of common sense and thought can go a long way in protecting your interests, and save everyone hassle.