Blog Post

The President and the "YouTube age"

This semester Im taking Fred Stutzman's class Online Social Networks at the School of Information and Library Science at UNC-CH. Because the class is open to both undergraduates and graduate students, one of the most interesting dynamics in the class so far has been the way different age groups view social network sites (SNSs). Yesterday, for instance, a 21 year old said that he and a co-worker of his who was "older, but not terribly old" had an unspoken agreement not to friend each other on Facebook because their age difference might make online disclosure awkward. It was soon revealed this not-terribly-old person was 29!

Last Tuesday at a high school in Arlington, Virginia, President Obama warned "everybody here to be careful about what you post on Facebook because in the YouTube age, whatever you do, it will be pulled up again later somewhere in your life. And when you're young, you make mistakes and you do some stupid stuff." Of course, the Prez has his own very active Facebook page, and - in this YouTube age - he used it plenty during his campaign last year, although presumably he un-tags himself when Joe and Jill post photos of Oval Office keg-stands.

The risks of inappropriate disclosure on an SNS is also a common theme whenever job-seeking advice is handed out here on campus. It would seem the common belief is that young people are more likely to document risky/risque behavior online, potentially having a negative impact on employability.  However, I wonder if this meme was born out of the stories of a very narrow demographic, and I wonder if it will stay relevant as we move forward. My concern is that if the President of the United States is going to give out advice about Facebook, shouldnt he be giving out good advice?

My theory is that that guy George you heard of - the one who applied for a job at Glaxo after getting his chemistry degree, but then Glaxo looked on Myspace and found pictures of him passed out drunk on a couch with inappropriate things written all over him in Sharpie - was in his early twenties during the mid-2000s and looking for his first real job. George was a millennial - a digital native. But heres the catch: even though he grew up with computers, he was relatively new to SNSs, as they only got popular around 2003. On top of that, the SNSs of the time might not have had particularly sophisticated privacy settings, or might have defaulted to way-too-public-for-your-own-good, and our friend George didnt even know you could change those settings anyway. In other words, George was in a small demographic of users who might have been the first to really get tripped up in an emergent blending of personal and professional online identities as they entered the workforce for the first time.

Now we know, perhaps because of stories like George's, to either not post photos of ourselves in compromising situations, or to adjust our privacy settings appropriately. Sure, there will still be times when privacy snafus happen and complicate our real-world interactions, but Im guessing those mistakes will be happening at a younger and younger age as children and teens adopt SNSs earlier. The mistakes in question, therefore, would hopefully be of a more trivial nature, e.g. while a picture of 10-year old Suzy picking her nose might be fairly devastating for her if it escaped online, it wouldn't likely prevent her from getting the job ten years later - and in the process Suzy also learns to be careful about what she shares with others online.

But who knows? Maybe unintentional acts of online disclosure will continue to plague young SNS users for years to come.

Do you think Obama gave the right advice about SNS use? If not, what should he have said?

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2 comments

Mike, I agree that the emphasis should be on teaching people to review and adjust their privacy settings instead of just reanimating the scary Internet Bogeyman over and over. At the same time, we also need to be investigating and exposing the complicated web of information exchange that is going on at sites like Facebook.

For example, I recently learned that many Facebook apps can get access to messages and parts of your profile that are otherwise private or protected. But at the same time, I can not bring myself to read an entire Terms of Service document unless it's less than one screen long.  How do we strike the right balance? We need to be open to some extent to benefit from the social aspects of social networks, but we have many reasons to want to protect ourselves as well.

I'd be interested to hear Fred's take on this as well, so let us know if this comes up again in class.

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Yes, what Facebook and its partners can do with your information is actually a much more interesting topic to me than what a potential employer might think of your high school photos 20 years from now. The topic comes up often in class. For instance, it's probably unclear to most people that installing an app - any app - on Facebook gives that vendor all the information in your profile AND all the information in all your friends' profiles. The NIH is leveraging that right now by trying to predict H1N1 outbreak patterns by analyzing Facebook networks of infected users who install their app. What if they were trying to predict AIDS infection or something more controversial?

I'm kind of amazed we put up with it, honestly. I mean, has anyone you know really read the Facebook TOS?

This is an example of what I think would really have been forward-thinking for the president to address, but I guess you have to consider the audience...

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