Your Best Face Forward: Facebook, privacy and professional implications

People generally react to social networking in one of two ways: with excitement or fear. You’ll hear one day that networking sites like Facebook are the key to success in an interconnected world. The next, you’ll hear they’re professional poison.

So which is it? Should we be excited about the power of this young world of social networking, or weary of it?

According to Hannah Selendic, Nebraska Wesleyan University’s web content manager, the smartest thing to be is a little of both. She pointed to the university’s burgeoning official Facebook page as a case in point. NWU quietly launched its page just before Christmas.

With the extreme weather and the holiday keeping people more than a little occupied, Selendic and her colleagues didn’t expect much initial activity. “Honestly, we just wanted to have it up and running ahead of the holidays,” Selendic said. “We figured we could focus on promoting it after the New Year.” Even with next to no promotion, the university hit 1,000 fans before January 1.

That rapid and unexpected growth reflects what is both exciting and sobering about social networking as a medium. “The best thing about Facebook can also be the worst thing about Facebook,” Selendic said. “People you don’t expect to notice you do.”

For NWU, that poses no problem. “We want the world to see it,” said Director of Public Relations Sara Olson. “It’s another communication tool for us and we’re excited to make better use of it.” But for individuals—especially college students entering the job market—there are potential pitfalls.

Katherine Kreikemeier is assistant director of Nebraska Wesleyan’s Career and Counseling Center. She speaks daily with students searching for work. She encourages them to polish not only their résumés and cover letters, but also their online profiles. “I tell students to look at their profile pictures and ask themselves what kind of message it implies to a potential employer,” Kreikemeier said.

She even has students scrutinize their cell phone settings. “Does the voicemail message callers hear put you in the best light?” When Kreikemeier returns students’ calls, she often hears students’ “ringback” settings—a feature that replaces the ringing a caller normally hears with music. “And it’s not always a song you’d want a potential employer to associate with you,” Kreikemeier said.

Technology has heightened the overlap between students’ personal and professional lives. That’s not inevitably a bad thing. For every applicant who hurts her chances of landing a job with an unfortunate status update or photo, there is another who improves his own with a bright or positive online presence. The key is for students to be aware of that personal/professional overlap, skeptical about online privacy and cognizant of the face they put forward through all social media.

Facebook recently overhauled and updated its privacy settings, ostensibly to give users increased control over their information online. It offers recommended settings for users. Kreikemeier for one approached the recommended settings with skepticism. “I took a look at them and realized they weren’t what I wanted.” She encourages students to use the same critical eye.

Her take on Facebook applies across all social media. “It’s not as private as it appears.”

Learn more about privacy groups’ reaction to Facebook’s new privacy controls in this NPR report.

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