Off to BBC Breakfast this morning to comment on some research out of Edinburgh University that says the overlap of our social circles on Facebook causes us anxiety. In the simplest terms, we don’t like it when our mum/boss sees us knocking back tequilas at 3am on a school night. But there’s also a serious point here about how our social lives are exposed to potential employers — and cost us roles as a result. 50% of employers in the study confess to having rejected a candidate based on their online profile.
In the pre-social network days, there was a very simple barrier between our social circles: geography. It was unlikely you would bump into your mum at the bar at 3am. Even if there were photos of the event, they were likely in a cardboard folder under someone’s bed, not available to view online. Sometimes this geographic barrier was breached, providing plenty of juicy material for sitcoms, but even then the news could only spread by phone, post or, believe it or not, talking face to face. You might be the talk of the village square but it would probably be restricted to the village.
These days any transgression — or just a simple good night out — can be shared via the web in real time, and unless you’re careful about controlling who sees it (not always front of mind when having fun) it can reach all manner of people.
Google Plus launched with an inbuilt solution to this problem: Circles. You define where in your social network someone sits, and then you can choose which ‘Circles’ see each update. Facebook has since followed suit with a list of different ‘networks’ based on the things you have in common with friends — employer, school, family etc.
The problem with these answers is that they are a little clunky. As I say, if you’ve had a couple of shandies, selecting the right networks for every update when posting pics of your antics is probably not top of your mind. Let alone that of the friends posting pics of you.
The situation is unlikely to improve soon. We are still evolving a proper social network etiquette, and ourselves learning how to use the networks to maximum potential without causing ourselves a disadvantage now or in later life. Laws are growing around this shifting core of digital grammar, but they will always be defined by the societal norms rather than the other way around. All the while the data we share online is gathering power and finding more and more uses. How long before your insurer can legitimately look at your online profile to determine what sort of risk you present?
Ultimately though, we will need to find a solution, and one academic at Lancaster University is already proposing just that. A means for social networks to learn about our friends and contacts and establish on our behalf who should see what. For example, if you post a photo at 3am on a school night from a district packed with nightclubs and Facebook knows that three of your non-work friends are also in the same location, it might assume the picture shouldn’t be shared with your mum or your boss. It’s a simple example but you get the idea.
We’ll still need a level of manual control, but if social networks can really start to understand us, maybe we can start to be completely ourselves online, posting without fear.