Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Dr. Phil hits the problem of "online reputation" and social networking site posts hard today

The Dr. Phil show today, (link) Tuesday, Jan. 15, “Internet Mistakes,” took heat on the issue of employers and the personal profiles, particularly on Myspace and Facebook, of associates and job applicants. It’s only fair to mention at the outset that the legal community is starting to sat that employers ought to be expected to follow notification practices if they look at online profiles similar to what are expected when they pull credit reports. I wonder if landlords are next.

This is frankly, from the view of the ethical world, a complicated problem and Dr. Phil himself struggled with it. He did take the position that if your job is to represent a company in public (or act as a role model for kids in school, for example) then you have a responsibility to consider how people will feel about you if you post salacious material about yourself online, or poke fun of yourself online, even to make a legitimate political point. In general, his position was supported by a recruiter from Job Bound, whose existential argument was that, in reality, the information is there now and you can’t blame employers for using it. Dr. Phil at one point appealed to “common sense” but admitted that this was a hidden, slippery slope. A complicating factor in all this is that some material about people is posted by others, and controlling that has become an issue (hence the company “Reputation Defender”). At one point, the view was expressed that almost all employers check social networking sites now, even "Taco Bell," but I doubt that. Dr. Phil noted a particularly disturbing trend among teens (and a lot of young adults) to poke fun of themselves in their photos and videos on the net, raising public questions about their credibility (there is more about this on my main blog, Jan. 16, 2008.)

The first story presented more or less grown young women posting Facebook pictures of themselves covered with smudges, passed out, vomiting, etc. The woman on the show said that this was a political statement. If men can do it (as part of “Skull and Bones” fraternity hazing or “tribunals” – often forbidden by school policy) why can’t women? Yet, employers or clients won’t “understand.” My own perspective is that, if I were an employer, I would not to find something like this from someone who was going to represent the company to the public outside of work, have direct reports or make big time decisions about other people (clients or subordinates). If it weren’t that kind of job, and it was really a gray area, I might ask her the point of the postings, and if she convinced me it was legitimate political speech, fine.

The next case involved the mayor of Arlington, OR, who had posted a PG-13 photograph of herself in lingerie online. Residents who had elected her were offended. The argument came out that this was her personal life, but she had voluntarily made it public. (Of course, someone else could make it public, too.)

Then the issue continued with the group “Thirty Reasons” about another message board exchange where some apparently damaging material became permanent.

Then there was a teenage girl who was caught underage drinking, but this may have happened because of postings by others. This incident is less controversial (in terms of her being exposed to future employers or schools) because, after all, the girl was breaking the law by drinking when she was only 17.

The last case rings home with me. A young, attractive male substitute teacher (“Ian”) trying to build a permanent career as a musician got fired after he gave a “mature” student the URL for his website (printed on a band sticker), which contained a f___ word on it. He was fired, but then rehired. The second time, kids found his videos again (since they would have known about them by word of mouth) and this time the problem was some incidental “R” nudity on his site. His site would not have been viewed as pornographic or objectionable by most adults in today’s cultural mainstream, by the community standards of the normal world. However, theoretically, it could have raised questions under COPA (the Child Online Protection Act of 1998), which has been struck down but is now in appeal. (My blog for this is this; look especially at Jan. 9, 2008). He was fired again. Dr. Phil did not identify the location of the school system other than to say that it was a "small town". The teacher claims that the school system should have a clear, written policy about off-duty online activity. I certainly agree with that. As public employees, teachers have First Amendment rights which must be balanced with special concerns about security and learning environment in schools. (No one mentioned this in the program.) Furthermore, a substitute teacher is normally paid much less, has much less steady work (no benefits) than permanent teachers, and in many states subs do not have to be licensed. Dr. Phil didn’t think there was anything really wrong with his website, but he felt that there could be a “conflict of interest” between the media world (which is open and accepts many forms of expressions as socially or politically relevant) and the public school system world, that must “protect” children. The audience generally applauded in favor of protecting children.

A little gumshoeing identifies the musician as Ian DeFeo, and the school district was in Cape May County, New Jersey. The NBC10 video on the firing is here. Ian's own site (besides Myspsace) is this. In fact, his Myspace page is this, and it has a place to vote on the firing. Apparently a parent complained that Ian somehow (or even accidentally) wound up on student's friend's lists, which would be inappropriate; this can happen with social networking sites but not with "ordinary" blogs or "simple" personally owned websites. Some parents in southern New Jersey may petition for his reinstatement. (By the way, I remember that soap opera director Bruce Minnix, who directed "Somerset" on NBC in the 1970s, was a mayor of Cape May then.)

To illustrate the difficulty of the controversy, Dr. Phil also had a young woman, Jasmine, from Facebook talk about how she monitors content for violating Facebook’s terms of service. These are much more “liberal” than would be the case for many employers, especially school systems.

One problem is that social networking sites, as part of "Web 2.0", are changing the psychological impression that people have of online activity; rather than as a publication activity (as having my own websites started for me), it is seen as "conversation" or "gossip". This was not the case, say four years ago.

I know of a graduate student who baldly displaces his substantial leg tattoos on his personal web page. Is this (potentially destructive) body art a form "self-deprecation"? Some people (including some employers) might feel that way. That does not suit my own taste, but of course it isn't my decision. If I were an employer, I might be concerned if the person's job involved representing the interests of my organization adversarially to the open public, but I wouldn't make it my business (I wouldn't even look at all) if he were an "individual contributor." Of course, one wonders, what if he wanted to be (or "had to be") promoted into a more sensitive position later? If the job were sensitive to public image, I would let any job applicant know in advance and have a clear policy.

For a review of a recent book on online reputation ("The Future of Reputation") by GWU associate law professor Dr. Daniel Solove, please go here, Jan. 12, 2008.

I have a review of the major network coverage of Michael Fertik 's company "Reputation December" (link above) on December 26, 2007 on this blog (please see archive links).

On Dec. 6, 2006 I reviewed another Dr. Phil show about a teacher losing a job because of off-duty reputation, and about the problem of fake profiles put up by other people. (Please see archives links.)

Of course, I do wonder what kind of impression my stuff makes (you can Google my name if you want). The picture I put on this blog entry might offend some. It is the inside of the model of a colon at a health fair. I suppose some employers could read something unintended out of it.

Update: Jan. 16, 2008

As if all this were not provocative enough, I found this morning a search argument against my domain's server logs about an incident where a female teacher was fired when her partner posted "inappropriate" photos of her on Flickr.com. I tracked this down to this discussion at worldaffairsboard.com. This appears to have happened in Austin, TX in 2006. There is a real argument about what is legitimate "art". One reader on the board put it this way, and I think it sums up the problem somewhat:

"A web page is not a photo album on the side table, it's a billboard. If you're in a position with certain expectations, even perhaps archaic expectations, then take a little extra care what you put up on that billboard."

Update: Jan. 16, evening: Message Board update

I have a posting on Dr. Phil's message board for this show here. Look for 'jboushka.'

Update: Jan 18

ABC 20/20 presented the story of Arlington OR mayor Carmen Kontur-Gronquist tonight. The story is called "Public Inferno Over Mayor's Not-So-Private Photos; Carmen Kontur-Gronquist on the 'Cruel' Efforts to Remove Her From Office," by Chris Connelly, link here.

See also this blog on Jan. 10, 2008 (look at archive link) for Dr. Phil's coverage of the "gossip girl" problem.

Update: Aug. 6, 2008

Dr. Phil's website now solicits visitors to submits stories if they have been "suspended because of Facebook" (as from schools or athletic teams) or "Is the Internet ruining my life" because of comments or photos placed by others on the Internet. Stay tuned!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The greater problem, I believe, is that on the Ian of Fire Myspace page, there are so many grammatical errors it's difficult to believe Ian was ever a substitute teacher. Regardless of what subject he subbed in, he should have a basic command of the English language and its attendant rules of spelling and grammar. Your public profile is your calling card, and if you hand someone a card full of misspellings you're saying "I'm too busy/lazy/oblivious to proofread my own business card."