This last summer, while I was working in Isla Vista 10 hours per week and goofing off the rest of the time, one of my friends started working for a firm whose business was background checks on social media. He was at the behest of clients — themselves employers — who would pay people like my friend to screen public profiles and catch red flags. Then, the summer ended. My friend found a new place of work, and his old place of work went under.
This seems like a curious thing. We all have Facebook accounts, our ability to keep them private seems to get more tenuous by the day, and, though many of us try to keep things professional, we have all seen some friend or another post something downright unbelievable. One of my friends posted a personal favorite of this genre; it was a selfie from the bathroom of his gym. Presumably, he was fresh from a workout, and so naturally the caption was, “Steroids and pre-workout are yummy.” There was pill bottle in the background next to a canister of C-4. It was half-empty.
Memories like this once led me to believe that social media screenings will one day become commonplace. It wasn’t hard to imagine an employer wanting to learn what kind of person they were hiring, and let’s be honest: Most of us learn about new people in our lives through Facebook. But it turns out the market for this kind of service isn’t the inferno that it seemed to be for a while. Among my friends, some of the worst offenders have found prestigious positions after college. Very few have ever made a significant change to the incriminating photos and posts that are there for all the world to see. No one really cares, and actually, that’s a good thing.
I’ve often been surprised how candid people are online. When I was a senior in high school, a wave of paranoia swept through and many changed their Facebook names to avoid the prying eyes of admissions officers who might not approve. At that time, I thought it was inevitable that one day Facebook would itself become some kind of multimedia college application. All we would see are pictures of volunteer work, hobbies, sports, interests and arts. I imagined that in 10 years or so, every profile picture would be from a volunteer trip to Haiti or some kind of championship game.
Of course, I was wrong. I’ve found that people put their real selves on social media, for better or worse. I’ve seen an Instagram completely dominated by pictures of rare weed. Red cups are ubiquitous. I’ve been caught holding them in all kinds of circumstances. The result is that social media has become a more meaningful snapshot of life. More than once, I’ve been genuinely touched by Facebook posts. People post from hospital beds, weddings, landmarks and birthday parties.
My guess is that employers are exercising discretion and not checking social media at all. This is good, but I like to think that even if they were, this kind of online publication — an honest one — would be more charming to potential employers than a dry-cleaned version that views like a resume. One day, the question will come up in a political campaign: Some candidate will have posted something asinine, and we will have to ask ourselves whether we can elect someone who published himself online looking like an ass. Details of the case will be important; some posts, I think, would be extreme enough to warrant disfavor. My inclination, though, will be to let bygones (underage drinking pictures, let’s say) slide. Facebook isn’t that old, and yet how many of us have put ourselves in a fundamentally unflattering light? All of us? I would guess that we all have, in varying degrees.
If social media is a part of our lives (and we’re kidding ourselves if we say that it’s not), I’m in favor of letting Facebook have (almost) the whole story. Like everything else, you can err on either extreme. I just like the current balance. With a few exceptions, we exercise restraint as a general rule. And yet, we don’t censor ourselves like some have told us we should. We’re in the middle ground, wherein the experienced observer can’t help but see some of the real person behind the profile.
Ben Moss loves being able to see the real person behind the profile … it helps guarantee he’s not being Catfished.