Archives For social networks

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For the last few years, we’ve all been told that ill-considered pictures on social media sites were going to come back to bite us. In a perfect world, it wouldn’t matter if you had a few crazy or wild pictures from your college days on Facebook because you’d just limit the access to your friends and it’s college so those days are past and should have nothing to do with your ability to do the job for which you’re applying. But we don’t live in a perfect world. Employers are judgmental and your privacy settings can be manipulated or circumvented, and lately there have been too many cases of employers doing exactly that. And without a court order and a lot of hard work, you will not be able to prove that you were rejected for a job not because you didn’t have a high enough GPA or enough years of experience, but because a picture of you having — gasp! — some fun once in a while, made a prudish HR manager purse his lips in disapproval and ditch you.

To help remedy this state of affairs, Viviane Reding, a high ranking European politician, is now trying to introduce a "right-to-forget" law which would mandate that pictures you no longer want on social media sites are removed and stay gone. Technically, social media sites already comply with takedown requests but the process can be slow and cached versions can still rear their ugly heads if someone knows how to rephrase a search. This law basically wants the image to vanish from the web as much as possible, and by doing, is asking too much. Once a picture is out on a website, it can be downloaded and reposted, cached, and distributed at a whim and any picture that goes viral can have literally thousands of different copies residing on servers around the world. Just try to track all of these copies down. You won’t be able to because the very nature of the internet today will be against you. That means that if you become internet famous for taking some very awkward body shots at a bar snapped by an amused stranger, you’ll just have to live with knowing that there’s little you can do to make sure that picture is wiped out.

So this is a bit of an issue, isn’t it? With everybody carrying around a camera linked to a social media ecosystem that’s not going anywhere anytime soon, despite its poor profitability, you will either have to watch your every step, become a homebody, or just deal with the consequences as they come. We can no longer get away with stashing embarrassing or questionable photos of ourselves in a shoe box or throwing them in the trash. How do we handle that? My suggestion is purely non-technical. We adapt our culture to deal with it and think twice before anything goes online under our names. That’s all we can really do because adding more filters, blocks, hacks, and privacy settings just tends to create new security holes and rarely deter determined sleuths with a good grasp of how social media and exploits work. And employers looking through profiles on social media sites will need to stop looking just because they can, since so many of them will already perform background checks, credit checks, employment verifications, education checks, and drug tests. Really, that should be more than enough.

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In my humble opinion, all too many of Paul Carr’s posts on TechCrunch tend to be rather verbose exercises in self-centered navel-gazing about life in a wired world, social media, book publishing, and cynicism about the future of cutting edge medicine, which yours truly put through the grinder. But in a pleasantly surprising turn of events, Carr managed to pen an interesting column about censorship on the corporate web and how we shouldn’t worry that one day, giant social networking sites will crumble under user complaints and ban pretty much any controversial or adult-oriented content. His point is that the web’s privately owned portals make the conscious choice to be prudish and appeal to the widest possible audience to keep revenues flowing, hence you see temporary, permanent, or intermittent bans on just about anything that might get prudes in a tizzy. But when it comes to the diversity of the web, we needn’t worry, since the web will always have a place for what an enormous social network or a major news blog considers to be just too controversial to allow on their sites.

And this is very true. The more respectable you want to seem, the more you have to crack down on how much you let your users express themselves, and everyone from breastfeeding moms, to racy corset designers, to advocates of medical marijuana could get struck down by a moderator’s virtual hammer. Even when you’re on the biggest sites on the web, you’re still on private property, hosting data on servers owned and paid for by an entity which expects to make a profit on doing what it does. And if that entity doesn’t want your data hosted on one of its servers, it has all the rights in the world to ask you to leave. True, without that Facebook group or an extensive campaign on Twitter, you may not get the attention of as many people as you may have hoped since your reach is limited from potentially millions to thousands through a ban, but you will still find a space on the web to host your ideas, and another social network or forum ready to spread it. Places like Reddit have plenty of users and they’re very tolerant about potential, or actual NSFW content as long as you tag it properly.

There’ve been plenty of essays written about the potential for major sites or social networks to conquer what we know as the web due to their sheer popularity. A popular scenario describes how we’ll be logging into just about everything through Facebook, reading news feeds on sites partnering with social bookmarking forums we frequent, and purchasing everything we need through the sites to which we tether our lives. Since it would be so easy and convenient to whittle down the web to just a few pages worth of widgets delivering virtually all the content we customize to our liking, why bother going anywhere else? Well, how about because a friend of yours shared a link? Or you were surfing through a social bookmarking site and came across something that caught your eye? Yes, some social networks may look like they’re trying to create a closed ecosystem that will be regulated by their rules and policies for a billion web surfers, but they’re actually just portals to what lies in almost every corner of the web, customized by interests, personality, and culture. All those logins into partner sites do is open the door to data mining and further custom-tailoring of suggestions and ads. They don’t try to restrict or censor the web, or forbid you from venturing to NSFW sites if you feel like it.

And on top of that, there are plenty of companies for which NSFW content is crucial to their EBIT because adult entertainment is the the second most popular thing on the web, an intensely close second to social networks which have been spinning off into adult varieties for years, inviting web surfers to join and meet other adults in their city for no strings attached sex. Or more likely, a scammer trying to sell subscriptions to adult cam sites or get into your PayPal account. These sites will never go away because we’re drawn to what they offer with a powerful urge from our limbic system, and their business model is pretty solid because eventually, someone will buy something that nets these companies a profit, be it a premium subscription to a site, or some toy that would make for rather awkward conversation if it were accidentally left out when polite company came to visit. So don’t decry the supposedly increasing tyranny and censorship of big social networks and news outlets on the web. They’re just trying to avoid lawsuits, complaints, and unneeded attention from politicians looking for some red meat in a campaign speech during which they can pound themselves on the chest and promise to be the defenders of virtue and decency in the digital world. Right before they head on over to RedTube at their supposed bedtime to intermittently take notes about what they find offensive and indecent enough to warrant some in-depth research and viewing. But only for the public’s safety and protection, of course…

[ illustration by Tomasz Miazga, some images may be a tad NSFW ]

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They’re out there, looking at your social networking profiles, party pictures, comments on news sites and even what your family and friends are doing online. They’re employers who receive your resume and decided that to make a proper decision about your potential at their company is to cyber-stalk you. In fact, some 70% of them rejected you for what they saw as an online transgression in an accelerating trend since 2008, when some of the first tales of corporate cyber-stalking during the hiring process came to light. Supposedly, they only want to check if you’ve been misrepresenting your job history by looking through your social media accounts. But it’s not exactly a comforting thought to know recruiters browse through whatever they can find out about you while saying they’re “just checking things out” and making silent, and sometimes costly judgments about your fate.

Sure, you can argue that anything that goes online is fair game and if you don’t want anyone seeing a photo or a comment, just don’t post it. Plus, you could always use your privacy settings to lock your profile down. But we should remember that employers aren’t just looking at Facebook anyone but searching for anything about you. And that’s when the real trouble starts. What if they come across a blog you’ve started and get incensed after a post catches their eye? At that point it doesn’t matter if your blog gets ten or ten thousand views a day, all it will take for your resume to be hurled in the trash, or your job offer to be revoked is just one view that disagrees. It can become a way to discriminate based on political affiliation and religious beliefs (or lack thereof) in a way that makes it much harder to address. Did you write something in praise of the health reform bill, or authored sympathetic odes to tea party zealots? Got something to say about the merits of atheism or state your explicit religious beliefs? Oh too bad, so sad, your resume just wasn’t up to par for Acme Corp according to recruiter Jane Doe after a really, really careful and thorough review…

Of course proving all this in a court of law would be very difficult. Unless you have your own blog and know the methods for tracking down IP addresses of visitors to find someone accessing it from a corporate computer, you won’t know who viewed whatever information was used to ultimately discard your application. And even if you do, once you start getting into the realm of a thousand daily visits, it would become a full time job to watch where your readers really are. When it comes to Facebook or Twitter, you’re on your own. To find any proof that you were the victim of discrimination based on your personal information would require a subpoena or two for the histories of the recruiters’ corporate networks and even then, it’s your word against the recruiter’s. You say he left a nasty comment on your post about the politicians you support, or your story of leaving your childhood faith, then threw away your resume. He says you weren’t as qualified as another candidate whose resume he can’t produce because it would violate privacy policies. And the comment wasn’t from him anyway since the IP which was registered was just the gateway IP for the company’s private network.

The most important thing to note here though, is that sifting through your personal information online to find a proper candidate who will make a perfect ideological fit at a company has nothing to do with that candidate’s professional abilities. Maybe if she’s applying to be a PR manager or a social media strategist, a slick profile that’s designed to attract employers would be a bonus. But for a programmer, an administrator, or an analyst, this kind of scrutiny is a case of recruiters sifting through personal information just because they can and they just happen to find it. They’re not supposed to and they can always claim they’re not digging into way too much detail, but really, its there at your fingertips and chances are, you’re going to look and you’re going to judge. An entire entertainment industry has been build on the human propensity for gossip and voyeurism so pounding your chest with your fists and declaring that you’d never look at really personal data isn’t very convincing. Even worse, this development gives ever more leverage to those who want to censor bloggers they hate by outing them in the hopes that employers will do the dirty work of rejecting their hated writers for jobs or firing them in the urge to avoid any and all controversy, even an ultimately meaningless one…

[ illustration by Sven Prim ]

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pardon our dust…

March 25, 2009

Weird Things readers may have noticed a few ongoing changes to the blog. One is the sudden appearance of academic citations in the footnotes of some posts. These are posts syndicated by ResearchBlogging.org, a project by Seed Media that highlights peer reviewed studies in the blogosphere. At the end of the day, this blog is all about science and even though I may venture aside every once in a while, my goal is to find and highlight interesting research as well as encourage the use of the scientific method. Being registered with Seed Media provides me with tools for tracking down and examining research papers with new or insightful information as well as cast a skeptical eye on studies which seem to fall a little short and make for challenging posts.

In more current events, the Weird Things Twitter has been growing slowly but surely, so if you like this blog and what I talk about, just click the follow button and get updates of what’s going on with the site as well as some amusing and strange random news. And yes, there is the rare but obligatory observation on daily life. You know what they say, when in Rome… Oh and there’s actually a book in the works from Dr. Ian O’Neill of Astroengine.com and yours truly all about space from a business standpoint. Read all about it in the press release and hopefully look for a copy of Astroeconomics: Making Money From The Vacuum Of Space in the eventual future…

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