BY Cayne McCaskell
In January 2011, a student from an Illinois high school posted a Facebook status ranking 50 of his female peers based on physical appearance and alleged sexual encounters. He was later suspended from school and arrested for disorderly conduct.
Although his story is unusual, anyone with an online identity is subject to the sharp eye of teachers, employers, and law enforcement. Saying the wrong thing can quickly escalate into disciplinary and even legal action, so avoiding slip-ups on social media is a benefit to students with a still-budding career.
The Internet is here to stay, and being able to use it properly can be a crucial skill for a both a student’s personal and professional life.
“One rule that I have always heard is to ask yourself, ‘How would I feel if what I had written online was on the front page of the newspaper?’” said journalism professor Theresa Hest. “It’s a good idea to have someone else read a message that might be risky before you send or post it.”
Hest said keeping a post’s audience in mind is vital to keeping up appearances. The larger your audience, the more careful you need to be about what your message is saying, as everyone will have their own interpretation, she said.
Lines must also be drawn between the content of text conversations between friends and composing a Facebook status for a company’s page. Input from others can help fine tune a message to minimize possible misinterpretations or controversy.
Another often-overlooked rule is to avoid posting about illegal activities online. This is more common with teenagers and young adults who are either unaware of who can see what they post, or just simply want to show off. Although seemingly harmless, such posts can be troublesome in the hands of administrators, law enforcement, and potential employers who look up social media profiles.
“The most important thing is obviously to not post about anything illegal,” political science freshman Terry Starkey said. “That’s kind of a no-brainer, but stupid kids get in trouble for it all the time.”
In other cases, “joking” about things like death threats, bomb threats and rape are also problematic. Though people don’t always mean what they say, threatening posts are often reported and handed over to law enforcement, who must take them seriously.
“If the message is something that might be borderline, wait a half hour before you send it, and see if you feel the same way after a short break,” Hest said.
When you’re behind the wall of a computer screen, it’s easy to quickly fire off a nasty comment and move on, but it’s important remember that it can lead to real life implications, she said. Most schools and workplaces have policies on cyberbullying, and some states even make it illegal.
Outside of punishment, comments can often be seen by anyone and reflect their author as a person. Internet communication is static, unlike verbal communication. A tweet or status made three years ago and forgotten about can be easily brought up or screen-capped and haunt its poster for a long time. Though what was said may have been important, most of the time it’s just not worth it.
Bottom line, a person’s online profile is a reflection of them, as well as their school or company. A defining story is that of Justine Sacco, a public relations executive who was fired for a questionable tweet. Before boarding a flight from London, England, to Cape Town, South Africa, she tweeted “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just Kidding. I’m White!” Her professional career was over the moment she hit send.
Although not foolproof, a way to avoid getting into difficult situations is to make personal profiles private. Almost all websites have privacy features that protect who can see content, and sites like Twitter and Instagram allow users to completely block profiles from being viewed by anyone unless they are given permission.
Blogs and profiles online can also be run without using a person’s real name or photos. This allows users to comfortably express who they are and explore their interests without judgment.
Withholding full statements of identity online removes some of the constraints of having to keep up a perfect image and allows media users to fully take advantage of the Internet without employers having a window into their lives.
Still, blogs and profiles are still traceable to their creator via IP addresses and email addresses, so legal implications still apply.
The Internet has changed the way humans interact with each other forever. It’s a place where revolutionary ideas are shared and where creativity can blossom. But it is not a separate reality. Use it to your advantage, but always use it carefully.