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.

Advertisements

Happiness in a Structurally Unhappy Culture

Modern media continually inject us with two anathemas: news and advertising. I will address the latter, which hinges essentially on a message of the form: YOU NEED X. This is what David Cross called “an existence based on manufactured necessity.” (Alan Watts has spoken somewhat on this subject from the Zen Buddhist perspective; without recommending him per se, I recommend reflection on his commentary.)

Individual notions of happiness are subjective, and so ideas of unhappiness are, too. I focus on one issue: does something about the capitalist model nudge us towards something we are prone to find unsatisfactory? I think so, and I think advertising is the connection between a business’ need to make profits and the idea that we lack (or “want”) something. It does not seem likely that we will make as many purchases if we do not feel we need or want anything. Markets are created as people discover a lack—and so there is an interest in manufacturing those lacks (“wants”). A common response to wanting something is some kind of unhappiness. The argument, then, is this: Capitalism emphasizes markets to create profits for businesses. Businesses use advertising to create and expand markets to generate more profits (for the business). Advertising often tells consumers that they lack something in their lives— that something is wrong, insufficient, or missing—and that the business can resolve it. The effect is twofold: 1) we feel our lives are constantly amiss, 2) we feel a continual need to “fix” our “broken” selves/lives/identities/being—and this requires that we work to get enough money to pay for these products and services throughout our lives.

If this line of thought has anything to it, then it is simplistic to think of the problem as strictly being money or power systems or economic structures. One of the fundamental assumptions of this argument is that our happiness is at odds with feeling that something is wrong with our personal state of affairs (whatever we may call “our lives”). This gives us a different notion of what the problem is and how it might be resolved (or what attempted solutions might not work). It seems that mere changes in external systems (especially economic structures) won’t be sufficient if we remain under the belief that our lives are ineffective and in need of constant aid. The corollary is the question: Can we then recover some of this happiness within the current system? If no economic or political system can make us happy so long as it imposes a continual feeling of our own inadequacy and insufficiency, can we achieve feelings of worth and sufficient value within a system that attempts to convince us of our continual want? The answer is crucial in helping us decide whether the next great revolution must be an internal or external one.