What You Say Online – Minors Edition

Dude, why did you say that?

Over at my LJ I spent some time recounting this story of post-election bursts of racism, and talking about my own experiences growing up in one of these similar types of towns where it’s 99.999% white people and racism continues to rear its ugly head.  The quick version: Barack Obama wins the national election.  A bunch of racist people take to the internet to voice their racist opinions.  Some of these people saying these racist things were teens.

And that’s where things got interesting.

The folks over at Jezebel recognized that a bunch of these tweets were coming from teenagers, who posted a ton of their personal information online.  Their full legal name.  Their school.  Pictures of themselves in their school uniforms, or team uniforms. Details about potential recruiting for colleges, etc.  So, they started calling up the schools, and pointing out that these students were in pretty much every case violating the code of behavior for their student body, and not serving as a positive role model or representative of the school.  And then they wrote an article about it.  They named their names, their schools, and more.

Today, Read Write Web called out Jezebel for violating journalistic ethics by engaging in public harassment of minors. The argument from RWW is that traditional journalism respects that minors who commit criminal actions or who engage in inappropriate behavior would not normally be named in an article or on a news broadcast.  Juvenile court records can be sealed, and often are, to allow for the mistakes of a young person to not tarnish the potential for a normal adult life.  The salient component from the RWW article:

When a minor commits a crime in the real world, the cops know who the kid is, as do the neighbors and everyone in the community. The journalist covering the crime knows the kid’s name, and if anyone wanted to, they could find out the minor’s name just by pulling up the public police report.

And this is where the internet is different, and it’s a point that I addressed in my personal blog.  Writing something on the internet doesn’t stay in your little town.  It is something that is PUBLISHED.  By putting your name, your location, and your words out there for anyone in the public to see, you are inviting the criticism of the world, and engaging in the very same game that publishers and journalists have been playing in for years.  The internet pierces the bubble of the local domain and expands your influence to the entire world.

This is why a viral video can spark an embassy attack.

What you do online means something, and it has consequences.  Some people are being visited by the Secret Service because they made threats against the President on Twitter.  It’s gravely serious.

So, the question is, should this news outlet publicly state the names of these teens who posted racist tweets?  I am standing by Jezebel on this one.  These teens already put themselves out there.  They may not have realized what they were doing would have such a profound impact, or even be picked up as national news.  And that is a failure of educating kids about how the internet works.  These kids probably thought that nobody read their stuff, and that they were just writing for their friends.  When in reality, what they are saying, however inane it might be, is viewable by anyone.  And that is the wake up call that they all just received.

This is core information literacy stuff right here.  Developing an online reputation, managing your personal information, exercising care and caution in what you say and how you say it to people.  All of these things are important, and kids don’t get it.  And with caching, and archiving, they will be subjected to the words they put out when they were at their most vulnerable.

I recall reading an article about a high school that developed an internal social network for their students.  The purpose of this social network was to give the students a kind of internet training-wheels so that they could experiment in a controlled environment before they went and swam in the deep end of the pool (Facebook, Twitter, etc.)  The student would spend the year in that environment, play around in it, get comfortable with it, and then slowly they would start to slip up, and then have a consultation with one of the faculty members or the principal.  The purpose of this exercise was to develop an understanding of what you say online, and how this can negatively affect you.  This absolutely needs to be incorporated into early education, and I’m talking like children 10 years old or less.  This is not intended to scare the kids, but to teach the kids about the lasting impact they will leave on the world, and the trail of information that may be used against them, even from when they are very, very young.

At the library we see kids on the internet pretty much all day long.  Some of these very young kids are on facebook and they are sharing pictures with each other. I will guarantee you that probably not a single one of them understands the privacy settings.  Hell, most adults don’t understand them.  And beyond that, they’re not thinking about what these pictures may say 10, 20, 30 years down the road.  And they absolutely need to learn that.  Being online isn’t a game.  It’s real.  And the consequences can haunt you forever.

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You Are A Brand (whether you like it or not)

In today’s employers market (and it is theirs, believe me), the base line assumption is that everyone down to the lowliest person in your company will have an email address and an electronic copy of their resume.  At the Public Library we spend hours a day introducing returning job seekers to this world that they’ve accidentally come to inhabit that is entirely online.  Checkout Cashiers at the local grocery have to apply online.  People who wash dishes, or flip burgers have to apply online.  To someone net savvy, like any of the people who are reading this blog right now this may seem like it’s not a big deal.  But it is.  It is an enormous deal, because these new job seekers, by the truckload, are unprepared to enter into this kind of workforce.  And the library becomes a default place to learn those skills in the moment of need.

Now I’m not complaining that we need to go back to paper society with physical applications, or even that our job is made more difficult by the massive influx of people who don’t have computer skills.  What I am more importantly concerned with is the severe disadvantage that new people jumping into the digital age face as they enter into the new workforce.

I’ve been online since 1994, at least.  I had an email address at the University of Cincinnati while I was undergraduate.  I learned how to navigate Gophers, then Mozilla, then Netscape.  I developed a handle for my email when I got one at Yahoo in 1997.  I came into my adult dating years via IRC.  I was filing documents online and through EDI to shipping companies in Costa Rica in 1998.  I jumped onto LiveJournal in 2002.  I’ve been on some social networks since before they were open to the public.  I’ve got a very broad and deep public persona.  And it’s one that, over the last few years, I’ve cultivated carefully into the person writing this blog.  That’s 15 years of history of being online, to become the person I am today.

And now we expect everyone to be there as a matter of course.  Not only are they expected to be at that level, but they are also expected to understand intricate levels of social propriety in online discourse so that they won’t tarnish the reputation of the company.  Some companies administer social media background checks against new employees, and if your public (or semi-public) persona is at fault they won’t hire you.

Everyone online is expected to be a brand of themselves now.  You’re not just promoting yourself when you go to that fancy party, or when you hand out your business cards.  No, it’s all the time.  You are building a reputation of who you are and what your values are as a person and as an employee all the time.  And your employers, as well as everyone else in the world, know who you make yourself out to be.  They can see if you talk about your previous employers, or if you bitch about your job and your coworkers.  Don’t think for a minute that they can’t.

Adults who have no online presence today, are like people with no credit score.  If you have no credit score, no bank in their right mind is going to give you a loan.  You’re untrusted goods.  No one knows your value or the value of your word.  The same is true for your online persona.  If you don’t have one, that says volumes about who you are to a prospective employer.  They don’t know who you are as an employee, but they can already tell that you’re lagging behind other people in the workforce. That means they will have to invest extra amounts of time in training you, which no American company is willing to do when they can pick and choose from the cream of the crop.

But even more damaging than those people who have no online persona are those who have been born with them.  Again, I see kids at the public library every day going onto Facebook, uploading videos to YouTube and posting pictures all over the internet.  One of the strange trends that is popping up these days are fight videos.  Now, everyone who went to a public school saw a fight between teens.  I saw plenty of them back in my day, and I could probably name names.  Some of them were vicious and brutal, and it is a fact that it happens.  But there was no permanent record of these fights occurring between these people.  Now there is.  And personal, reputation damaging content like this being online can ruin someone’s life before they even have a chance to begin it.  There was a fantastic article in Forbes about how The School at Columbia University is approaching teaching kids about the effects of their actions online.  They have developed an internal social network that allows the kids a chance to experiment with online interactions in a controlled environment, so that they can learn about the repercussions of their actions.  On page two they talk about a YouTube video that one of the students posted where he jokingly makes a racist statement and then play-fights with a friend.  A teacher was able to find the video, and bring the students into the Principal to talk about the consequences of what this video can mean to someone years down the road, when they themselves may have even forgotten it exists.  That level of social sophistication is something that today’s kids, and all future kids, are going to have to be instilled with from the very beginning.

The digital divide today is so much more than just having access to the computer and the internet.  It is about understanding a new level of social interactions, having a permanent record of your life available for the world to see, establishing a digital reputation for yourself, and maintaining that image throughout your life.  Adults joining the online world for the first have two hurdles to overcome, not only the technological, but also the social.  Children and Teens who are getting online are going to need to have a serious education about branding themselves, developing their unique online persona and managing the image of themselves online.  Teens are always experimenting with breaking the rules, and pushing boundaries, but they don’t always understand the consequences of their actions.  Today its even more crucial to know that, because mistakes that teens make today most certainly will come to define their employment opportunities in the future.