Sunday, March 11, 2007

NY Times Magazine ethicist on checking profiles

The New York Times Magazine, March 11, 2007, p. 26, has a column "Online Extracurriculars" by ethicist Randy Cohen. An interviewer for a college, having researched the applicant on the Internet with a search engine, asks whether she should ask the applicant about the applicant's social networking profile or blog. Mr. Cohen says no. Even though the blog is in a public space, the writer perceives it as like a diary. He notes that the University of Nevada, Las Vegas has announced it will not look at online informaiton in evaluating applicants. In this case, the college in question asked the interviewer for the url of the blog anyway.

Of course, a blogger is likely to post information because he or she wants to influence debate and believes that personal stories bear on the debate, with more precision than what lobbying organizations representing someone can offer.

I believe that employers and universities should not consider online information from search engines, not out of concerns about maturity or pseudo-privacy, but more because mainstream employers and schools should not be trying to force social conformity. The exception would be egregious information (such as related to crime) that can be confirmed. It is legitimate for law enforcement to use blogs as evidence in some cases. As noted before in this blog, "dream catching" or "fake self-incrimination" can pose testy potential legal problems for employers or schools should they find it.

Employers and schools may be inclined to read blogs and profiles for "inference" -- asking themselves what motivated the speaker to make a particular posting, what the speaker is "accomplishing" with the posting, or what may be inferred about the speaker from what she says. The type of reading here is like what students are asked to do on SAT's (or teachers do on ETS PRAXIS exams): first, read for literal meaning, and then draw conclusions about what a writer likely believes about herself or about other people or entities in some sensitive situation.

Some employers may tend to take the position that someone should not say something on a blog or profile, visible to the public and search engines, that he or she could not say in an open conversation at work. An employer might believe that "you" should "earn the right to be famous" by playing by the old fashioned rules (proving that you can sell what you write or say first in conventional markets) before you have a right to be heard in public. Otherwise, anything you say in a public space can reasonably be taken as indicative about your suitability to remain in your job. It's not clear that this notion is legally (or morally) supportable, but employers and speakers need to ask the question, and the legal community needs to think it through conceptually.

Also, remember (as in a posting a few days ago) that information about someone posted (on the public Web) by others is often very unreliable and should not normally be used in evaluating applicants. Normally, a job applicant (at least at individual contributor levels) should not be expected to regulate his informal social reputation online for job purposes.

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