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Red-Faced On The Web

Miss New Jersey, Amy Polumbo, isn't the first person to be embarrassed as a result of "private" digital photos that went public. It's happening at an increasing rate. And while the 22-year-old beauty queen didn't lose her crown over the incident, others have lost their jobs, been denied employment and have even gotten in trouble with the law or school officials as a result of online postings.

A famous cartoon from the New Yorker shows a dog sitting in front of a computer telling another dog: "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog." But now, thanks to the Internet, everyone knows everything about you. Or at least they might be able to find out.

Online reputations are increasingly important in the workplace, in school, and even in social life. Search engines make it easy to find information about most anyone, especially if that person has been active online.

With the rise of social networking sites, more information is available than ever before. Whether it's someone you want to date, a potential employer, or a college admissions counselor, if there's information out there about you and they want to find it, chances are that they can.

Once something is posted online, it can be accessible forever. What was cool, funny, or innocuous at age 16 or 18 could prove embarrassing or even damaging when you're 24 or 42. Even if you delete something, anything you post could be "cached" or stored by search engines. The Web site archive.org operates the "way back machine" that resurrects old versions of Web sites, even if content has changed or been removed.

If you don't want to share information with the world, don't put it on a public Web site. If it's something that you absolutely don't want to share, don't even post it on a private profile or send it via e-mail.

In addition to what you post, be aware of what others are posting about you. On ConnectSafely.org, a social networking safety site I help operate, a distraught husband and father recently posted that he was being publicly humiliated in an online profile maintained by a bitter former girlfriend.

Unfortunately, there isn't much he can do about it. Though rude and mean-spirited, the content posted by his ex appears to be constitutionally-protected free speech. Because it doesn't violate the terms of service, the social networking company that hosts the profile will not take it down.

In some situations, you can get a social networking site to remove information about you - if it is libelous, lewd, racist, or otherwise in violation of the company's terms of service or the law. If you feel you are being victimized on a social networking site, report it to that company's abuse department. Feel free to post a notice on ConnectSafely.org, so that staff can investigate and try to remedy the situation.

What is posted by you, or about you, can affect your future employment prospects. Dayna Romanick, an Austin, Texas-based recruiter for Manpower, an employment agency, says that she works with employers "who check (social networking) sites, especially for management and upper level candidates."

What they find, she says, can affect whether they make an offer. "If there is anything that could reflect less than positively on their company they will decline those candidates," said Romanick, adding that some employers also searched video sites for material by or about job seekers.

Kathy Sims, director of the Career Center at UCLA, knows of similar cases. "Students might not want to know that this is the case, but there are employers who are checking out what's there or listening to things that are reported to them."

Sims recalls a case in which a student residential advisor was fired after someone posted a picture of him drinking a beer in the residence hall where he worked. "It wasn't even his profile - he was on someone else's page," she said, noting that he was let go because UCLA officials "want people to know we have a zero tolerance for that type of thing."

As a former UCLA student, I know for a fact that the young man wasn't the first person to have a beer at a UCLA dorm. But when evidence of a rule violation was posted publicly, the university was forced to take action.

Neither Romanick nor Sims routinely surf the Web to find evidence on students or potential employees, but that doesn't mean it can't happen. "In general," says Romanick, "recruiters don't check online profiles, but instead they rely on interviews, background reference checks, and standard things that have been relied on for years. However, it is done from time to time."

Sims said that UCLA administrators don't routinely look at online profiles, but it could happen if "something was brought to the attention that maybe has merit." In fairness, she said, "We would first ask if it is for real, or could it be photo-edited."

I spoke with admissions officers at several large universities and small colleges; none said that they look at profiles on a regular basis. Officials at UCLA, University of California, Santa Barbara, and University of Missouri said that the sheer number of applicants makes it impractical.

Also, large universities often have specific admission criteria that don't factor in what's being said about people on the Internet.

Still, said Sue Alexander, dean of students at Wheaton, a private liberal arts college in Norton, Mass., "students need to understand who they are talking to on these sites and set their privacy settings accordingly." Alexander said that "we do not routinely look at them, but if students call attention to them to show off their high school activities, we might look and perhaps find something they didn't intend us to see."

Mike Sexton, Dean of Admission of Lewis and Clark, a liberal arts college in Portland, Oregon, says information about candidates from Web sites would be "neat to know but not need to know." Like his colleagues at other schools, Sexton and his staff don't look at online profiles of candidates but "that doesn't mean to say that some young staffers at some colleges don't do that."

Several deans and admissions officers I spoke with said that younger office staff are more likely than older staffers to check out a student or candidate's online profile.

Just as among professionals, teens are mixed on whether Internet postings will affect them later in life. Jenny, a 15-year-old from California, says "I think that I monitor myself when I post items or say things because I know that some people could see it who I didn't want to, and that could lead to problems. I wouldn't post illegal activity because it might interfere with people's opinions of me and prevent me from achieving my goals."

Robert, 18, confidently throws caution to the wind. "I feel that if I do those types of things, it reflects my personality, so I don't care what's put up on the Web," he explains, "because I am who I am and it reflects that. And if people have a problem with me, then I wouldn't want to work with them or know them."

I felt the same way as Robert when I was his age.

But there were no web cams or social networking sites to preserve my youthful indiscretions for the ages.

Lucky me.



A syndicated technology columnist for over two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."
By Larry Magid
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