Employer Facebook Checks: How the Law Struggles with Culture and Ignores Metaphysics

Question of privacy in cyberspace cover a vast range of applications. One that I find interesting is the use of social media as a tool by potential employers to research prospective employees. This is interesting because it is at an intersection of cultural, technology, law, and metaphysics.

It is increasingly common for employers to check on a prospective employee’s Facebook page (or other social media). I like to use the case study of Stacy Snyder in this NYTonline article: http://goo.gl/bMw0Kl

The issue is that a student-teacher was dismissed over a photo on her MySpace (that dates the example a bit, eh?) that was captioned “Drunken Pirate.” This situation becomes the image of concern: an employer delving into your personal (yet published) photo album to look for objectionable material.

Let me divide up the issues:

1) The legal and/or cultural claim to privacy. Before Facebook or MySpace, it would be extraordinary for an employer to ask to see photos from your latest party as part of the application process (barring government security clearance checks). Although social media has allowed us to share such personal material with a wider range of friends, we are not culturally comfortable simply surrendering previously private/personal material to the entire public sphere.

2) Context is everything. Bill Waterson’s iconic character, the rascally 2nd-grader Calvin, once explained that people are wrong to assert that “photos never lie,” for, in fact, all they do is lie. To illustrate, Calvin clears one area of his room and puts on a tie to have himself photographed as a clean, tidy young boy (he is normally dressed in a t-shirt and has a notoriously messy bedroom). So it may be argued with Facebook photos, Tweets, etc: Can a single snapshot, sentence, or post represent an individual- even partially? Can it be completely incorrect? Without further explanation, how badly can it be misinterpreted? This claim speaks not only to the protection of the poster, but also raises the question of whether investigating an applicant’s social media is truly helpful in obtaining accurate data about the applicant. A related issue here is the notion of Performance Identity online (see: Life on the Screen by Sherry Turkle). Many posts and photos may be uploaded not as a reflection of actual identity, but as an effort to entertain or amuse a particular audience.

3) The Metaphysical puzzles of being and identity over time. One of the core points of the NYTonline article linked above is that the internet makes possible the storage of everything we say or do- FOREVER. One question is whether applicants ought to be judged by high school or college photos or posts. Indeed, the question is founded on an ancient metaphysical quandary: what is the relationship with one’s self over time? We have a cultural concept of “not being the same person” at age 15 as at age 30. Yet right now, many 30 year old job applicants could be in the position to defend the digital traces left by their 15 year old selves.

The final point to note here is that Facebook was not designed to be a massive social media platform through which employers scouted and screened applicants. It was a way for college (and later high school) students to communicate and make limited broadcasts to a select audience. It was a kid’s toy, really. To me, it still is- I think that’s why my generation sometimes feels weird that our parents have Facebook profiles. The platform was never made for “grown-ups” or “grown-up things.” That was an accident, and treating it otherwise is a mistake.

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Cyborgs and Avatars

 Last year, I wrote a paper to address (primarily) one question: How, metaphysically, can we describe or explain our connection to and presence in cyberspace? (e.g., When I play an MMO, where am I? Is my social network profile me, or part of me, or a representation of me? When I act online while sitting at a desk, where does my action take place? If I am in one place while my actions are in another place, who is really performing the action?) I offered two possible explanations: the first found roots in structuralism and semantics, understanding the issue as one of representation through symbols. Here, “network” became an appropriate term for understanding the metaphysics of the internet. The second option I offered was analogized by hand puppets, and held that when people act online, they do so through avatars of some sort. While they are distinct from their avatars, they animate and control them, and so act through them.

I briefly mentioned other, related ideas but did not develop them. One such idea was cyborgism. I wasn’t sure (and I still am not) how to develop this idea, but I think it works by turning the problem inside out: rather than explain how we exist in machines, we have to explain how machines exist in us. Perhaps by explaining how we are affected by smartphones, motion-sensor videogames, robots, Facebook and Twitter feeds, and the like, we can understand the questions of cyberspace from a new angle. Perhaps this is not so different from the “puppet” view, except that the hand does not merely occupy the puppet, but merges with it. This might make sense if we agree that we shape our media (and technology) and then our media shapes us. On this view, it may not make sense to talk about the human as above and distinct from the media.

I don’t yet have a good grasp on this fledgling idea, but I always like the idea of questioning the question.