In June, Harvard withdrew admissions offers from 10 students who exchanged offensive, obscene and hateful memes in a private Facebook group called “Harvard memes for horny bourgeois teens.”
You might be tempted to shake your head and chalk this up to immaturity, but it’s not just college kids being held accountable for their digital posts. Remember the woman who lost her job over an insensitive AIDS tweet? And earlier this year, a dean at Yale was fired for inflammatory and hateful reviews that she posted on Yelp.
If one thing is clear, it’s that we’re all becoming much more vulnerable to online blunders that can ruin our careers. Already, 50% of US adults say their Google results aren’t positive and that number is bound to increase as we live more and more of our lives online.
The scary thing is that, as our online vulnerability has increased, so too has our reliability on digital searches and screenings — both manual and automated — to make important decisions. Depending on the study, somewhere between 30% and 40% of college admissions officers admit to screening social media accounts to learn more about their applicants. And 30% said they had found info online that had negatively affected an applicant’s prospects.
College admissions officers aren’t alone. Today, 75% of HR departments are required to look candidates up online before offering them an interview. And 70% use social media to screen candidates, up from 11% in 2006. With access to tools that help automate this screening process, can you really blame them? Walmart receives 5 million job applications per year. Even if you only spent 5 minutes per application, it would still take you 205 years to get through every application before you even held a single interview.
Customers are following suit. Even when consumers start the buying process with a referral, Google is the very first place they look to do their due diligence. Online search has become the most trusted source of information about people and companies -- a higher level of trust than any other online or offline source.
The Rise of the Reputation Economy
These trends aren’t going to reverse anytime soon. As data aggregators become more powerful and digital information about our reputations becomes more readily available, we can expect our online reputations to play a bigger and bigger role in whether or not we land important clients, business deals, or job interviews. Even the White House is exploring what it would look like to make “social media screening” a part of the vetting process for immigrants to enter the country.
With our personal and corporate digital reputations so heavily scrutinized during purchasing decisions and big life moments, you might find yourself drawing parallels to how banks and credit card companies use credit scores to make their decisions on rates and loans. The difference is that, as we become savvier at retrieving and analyzing digital footprints, the impact of your online reputation is likely to play a much larger role than a credit score ever could.
Think of it this way: the average young person today will switch jobs 12 times in their career. That’s a new job (and another reputation screening) every three to four years of our professional lives. And by 2020, 40% of the US workforce will be working freelance on the side. All in all, more than 60 million people will consistently rely on the power of their personal brands and online footprint to further their careers and bring in a steady income.
Unlike any generation before, today’s employees must consistently pitch themselves to the next employer. (Hence, the rise of LinkedIn.) Any skills you acquire need to be showcased and visible, both for human and automated screeners. The people that figure out how to showcase themselves well for digital screenings will earn more opportunities. Those that don’t will miss out and wonder why they’re getting passed over.
Online Privacy Offers a False Sense of Security
Importantly, the reputation economy goes far beyond what is searchable and public.
The Harvard students shared memes in a private group message on Facebook, and the posts still ended up in the hands of admissions officers. How did that happen?
It’s simple, really -- someone shared them. Even if you believe in the general goodwill of the tech corporations that host all this data, your online posts and messages are only as private as the people you share them with. (One lesson we can take away from today’s political climate is that private emails have a funny habit of getting unwanted public attention.)
And don’t forget that apps like Snapchat have blanket permission to “store and distribute” your drunk and nude selfies — you agreed to it in the terms and conditions — and Facebook has admitted toplaying games with your privacy settings, offering up your “private” account to potential friends by using your phone’s GPS data.
Online privacy offers a false sense of security because it lulls us into thinking we can post, share, message, or email whatever we want online without repercussions.
My advice? Don’t post or share anything online that you wouldn’t want your customers or employers seeing.
Your Online Presence Can Be a Valuable Asset
When people hear horror stories like this one, their first reflex is to hide. Some folks change their name on Facebook or start spending less time on social media.
It’s a good idea, but unfortunately, it doesn’t solve the main issue, which is that colleges, consumers and employers are all using online reputation screenings as an integrated part of their decision-making process.
Your online reputation is the information people (and machines) find about you online, so hiding behind privacy settings -- or not posting anything at all -- actually puts you at risk. If a hiring manager’s automatic screening tool can’t find anything about you online, it’s an easy reason to move onto the next candidate. (57% admit to doing this.) When clients Google you and can’t find anything about you or your business, they’re just one click away from your competitors.
So while those Harvard students were using Facebook to spread hateful messages, remember that you can choose to use your digital presence to build identity capital, support your career and drive revenue.
Be smart about how you position yourself online. It may be your ticket to success, and it doesn’t require a Harvard education.