It's been well over a year since I first wrote about how the social networking frenzy is impacting the personal and professional reputations of Internet users. Since then, we've continued to see stories about how many companies are now running Google searches before hiring applicants. In fact, it's becoming more and more common for companies to decide not to hire someone based on what they've found in a potential hire's online profile.

As I was looking around Facebook a few weeks ago, I found myself wondering if we're reaching the point where we not only have to worry about our own profiles, but the profiles of the people we associate ourselves with.

I've watched the online marketing industry flock to sites like Facebook and LinkedIn over the past year and I'm sure I'm not the only one who has noticed the race to show off one's "social power" by building up massive lists of contacts. I've come across more than one profile associated with 500+ or even 1000+ contacts and thought to myself "either that person spends more time chatting than working, or they aren't very discriminating about who they dub a 'friend.'"

I've found myself sorting through my own friend requests from people I've never heard of and who give me no reason as to why I should add them to my account. That's not to say I'm not happy to make new friends or to expand my network, but some type of email or note explaining why you'd like to connect with me goes a lot further than an otherwise random request.

Last week, I clicked to view the profile of one of the people who randomly attempted to "friend" me and was shocked at what I found. I suppose if I was a 20 year old guy pledging a college fraternity, I might have been impressed, but as a marketing professional, I can't say I found the profile even remotely appealing. I certainly couldn't see any reason why I'd want to associate myself with this person.

That got me thinking and I began surfing around looking at some of the profiles of people I had "friended". While I didn't find many surprises there (as I only tend to accept invites from people I already have an acquaintance with) I did find some shockers when I clicked through to view THEIR connections. Strippers, bongs, beer stands, and talk of both recreational and hard-core drug usage left me wondering who exactly my "friends" were hanging out with. I'll admit, it didn't leave me with the best taste in my mouth.

So I wondered...with so much press popping up about the need to keep your social media profile "squeaky clean" and "professional" in case a company does a little background checking on your "character"...do we need to also watch for the day when they start examining our friends?

Will it matter if your profile projects you as being a model citizen (whether you are one or not) if a single click shows that your friends and acquaintances like to party like an 80's hair band?

Does the company you keep, define who you are? Perhaps even more so than your own profile?

I'm not sure of the answer on this one. There's no doubting the professional skills or qualifications of many of the people whose profiles left me a little shocked. But that's because I've been around long enough and know enough about them to really *know* what their marketing and business skills are.

Someone new to the industry? Well, they may focus more on the image and the actual results. Especially when the results are hiding somewhere in the computer behind the shot of someone with their pants around their ankles and the drugs on the desk.

Reputation management was a big buzz word in 2007. It leaves me wondering if reputation management is going to extend to considering the impact of the reputation of your friends and associates in 2008.


January 2, 2008





Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.





Comments(20)

I'm surprised I haven't read more articles about this as it mirrors my own thoughts exactly and is, among other things, the reason I don't have a Facebook, LinkedIn or MySpace profile.

While I am (no, honestly) a professional, upstanding internet marketer and all that - many of my real life friends are, shall we say, a little bit rock n' roll.

I couldn't have a social networking profile without befriending my friends, but contrarywise, I wouldn't want a potential client getting the wrong impression of me based on these friends.

Hence, no social networking for me and, I'm sure, thousands of other people who feel the same way.

Wow Jen; I've always not agreed with you on some things you write about, but this newest writing by you is totally right on. You wrote this:

"As I was looking around Facebook a few weeks ago, I found myself wondering if we're reaching the point where we not only have to worry about our own profiles, but the profiles of the people we associate ourselves with."

and this:
"Does the company you keep, define who you are? Perhaps even more so than your own profile?"

It absolutely does matter WHO you associate with. I've noticed the exact same things as you, but noticed it a very long time ago. The company you keep has almost everything to do with how others will see you. I know for a fact that just because you associate yourself with the likes of Robert Clough, you give yourself added credibility in the eyes of many... me included. As you know; I don't have lots of fans outside my own forums, and for good reasons...and most reasons are on purpose. I've always thought that this social media craze has many drawbacks and you have touched on a BIG one right here.

Great stuff!

I've been wondering the same thing lately. I try to be very careful who I add as my friends on the one social networking site I mainly frequent. But I can't control how indiscriminate they are about adding friends. I guess that's why they call it networking. But I've often worried that the possibility exists that my profile is just six degrees of separation or less from a porn purveyor. As a family blogger, that would not be a good thing.

Happy New Year and welcome back!

Having come of age during the social media craze and the age of facebook I can say that I have kept my nose pretty clean. If you find me on facebook you aren't going to find me tagged in any "bad" photos.

I have done my fair share of resume reading and can tell you most of the time when I am talking on the phone with the potential coworker (or clients/vendors for that matter) I seek them out on facebook. So what if you aren't on facebook and you graduated college in the past couple of years? Can you use a computer? Probably not - so I always question computer skills. Just as much as having facebook or social media profiles can hurt you they can also help you.

So in accordance with the ever rising social media fad I have done some house cleaning. If I would be embarrassed to show my mom then it doesn't need to be public.

To be honest, any company that screens it's job applicants based on who they hang out with outside the office isn't worth working for. I have pretty liberal views. If some company run by the most conservative of consevative people screens me because they don't like me supporting certains causes, fair enough. I wouldn't want to work for them.

As far as Facebook, MySpace, Bebo and all the more "social" social networking sites go, just set your account to private and hey presto, no need know a thing about you.

LinkedIn is different as it's good for building industry contacts and potential leads. That's worth keeping clean but then it seems pretty hard to brag about your personal life on LinkedIn. Would you mention that you party it up and such like on your CV?

I think people can be a bit too paranoid about how they're perceived on the internet. All it takes is a little forethought and understanding. The old adage "don't mix business with pleasure" comes to mind.

But Rob, isn't "mixing business with pleasure" exactly what sites like Facebook are doing?

I agree with you re: LinkedIn, because there's so much less "personal" content on sites like that one.

But on Facebook...well, that one is another story, especially if someone chooses to keep their account "open."

To note, I'm not saying people SHOULD judge you based on what your friends are doing, simply that many people will. That leaves me wondering how all of this is going to pan out over time.

Boy, Jennifer, you have made some very interesting points and I would have to agree that it is important to be wary of the "network" of friends you keep when it comes to your online profile. And you are so right about Facebook when you say, "isn't "mixing business with pleasure" exactly what sites like Facebook are doing?" It is a tough call when some are using these platforms strictly for "fun" and someday they might need them for business and it could come back to bite them in the a**.

I agree with Mark, the topic of "reputation management" should be addressed and I hope I find more quality posts like yours this year about this very topic.

That is something to really think about before you do accept someone as your friend. I think I will go and look right now. Not that I would have an employer looking but as a Real Estate professional could my potential clients be looking at thing like this also?

I'm surprised as well that despite the ever-growing popularity of social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, discussion of how it could potentially negatively impact you in the working world has been so minimal. It is certainly becoming more and more common that interviewees for a job are googled, "facebooked", or "myspaced" as part of the weeding out process. Privacy setting therefore take on a much more important role and I advise all people seeking jobs with new employers to make sure to review their profiles before even submitting an application or resume.

Because of my employer, I monitor a number of human resources related blogs and publications, and I find it interesting some of them have been discussing the same issue, but from the "other side of the table", so to speak.

"Over there," the experts are warning companies to be very cautious about using these social networking sites when evaluating potential employees.

See, in the US (and Canada and the EU and elsewhere), there are facts you can learn about job applicants from these sites that are *illegal* for a company to use when making a decision.

And I'm not talking about stuff like drug use. I'm talking about relatively innocuous things like race, age and marital status. Things that even a "squeaky clean" profile would likely reveal.

Visiting these profiles and using what they find in there opens up all kinds of potential legal issues for the hiring company. Maybe you didn't hire the person because the profiles of all her "friends" feature prominent photos of wild drinking parties and drug paraphernalia -- but when a rejected applicant takes you to court claiming age discrimination (her profile reveals she's 48 years old, thus a member of a "protected class" in the USA), how are you going to *prove* her age didn't enter at all into your decision?

A good lawyer could argue that trolling through her profile was your attempt to circumvent the legal restrictions on what you can and cannot ask in an interview.

Of course, for freelancers and contract consultants, the issues are different. But what the HR experts are advising is that companies be very careful about their use of social networking profiles (as in, don't do it) when making employee hiring decisions.

I agree with Rob. It's one thing to have a professional profile, but you shouldn't feel like you have to go out of your way to delete friends that aren't as squeaky clean as your job prospect wants them to be.

I understand what you're saying, Jennifer--that some companies may very well judge you for who you associate with--but I think that, like Rob said, any company that paranoid enough to check that deeply may not be a good fit for you.

I think it matters, but the real question is, how much does it matter? And what if you are using Facebook for networking, and your best bud is using it as a social network as a way to 'have fun'? This is why I think Facebook is an interesting case study, because it seems that some members use it as another MySpace, others use it as another LinkedIn.

Guess it depends on how the person doing the searching views it. I think as social networks become more popular, this will continue to become a more relevant issue.

If a total stranger came up to you at a train station and asked to be your friend, you'd probably be wary/ask a few questions and/or not call this person a friend, but someone you met at the station "who's quite interesting" etc.

so the Facebook scenario of accepting to be a stranger's friend knowing next to nothing about them is very strange.

then to be worried about their reputation and the damage it might do to yours is very very strange.

I think that if you admit total strangers in to your social life on the net, your brand is marked 'open to strangers'. so if it transpires that they are an ax murderer, tough. equally, they might be a wonderful human being tending the slums of Calcutta.

if these spaces start to become managed and treated as some kind of commodification or commercialisation of personality the joy of social media as a third place is sunk.

Jennifer, your article brings to mind those guys at college who had no social lives because they did not want to be associated with anybody who would affect their reputation when they ran for President someday. I'm serious.

I think the answer to this dilemma lies in Sage Lewis' excellent video this week. If the future lies with 80% of small businesses, not 20% of soulless large corporations, then the problem isn't one for us to really worry about - it's the personal problem of some lifeless HR staffer locked away in an office judging you by your risk of deviance from some corporate norm. And is that the sort of company you really want to work for?

To be honest, many employers of a certain age would tend to assume that having a social networking profile at all implies that the potential hire may feel they have the right to be online (and not working) three hours a day. The mere fact that a potential hire mentions it on a resume or in an interview could suggest to an employer that their social networking habits will be a problem during work hours.

Heather,

I certainly tend to agree with you. As I noted in my original post, I could look at some of those profiles...packed with an HR rep's worst nightmare and say "but man, they're one of the absolute most skilled marketers I know."

I *KNOW* the skills of some of these folks and can recognize that they simply party as hard as they work.

Clearly, companies should be hiring them for their skills and not based on who they hang out with.

That said, reputation is an important thing. We all know this. One person out there maligning your small business on a local review site or a forum can wreak havoc on your business. It doesn't have to be right or fair for it to be reality.

That's what makes me wonder how far this will go.

You couldn't possibly pay me enough to go work for corporate America again, so I don't much care what the corporate HR types do these days, but again, I've also seen the impact on a business from a single bad review somewhere. With our people becoming our brands, it's an issue everyone needs to at least give some consideration to.

OK, here's what I agree with ... I understand that your own social profile should be kept clean, and you should never let yourself be in a questionable photo (that could show up on someone else's page). I also agree with the fact that you should at least know the people who you add as "Friends." And, if you're worried at all, definitely set that profile to "private."

But the fact that you should analyze what's on your friends' profiles? I think that's too far. After all, most people know that most of your contacts aren't really "friends." They're acquaintances ... but that is a little too long and boring of a word for MySpace or Facebook.

Most people have at least a few hundred people who they would call "acquaintances." (Trust me, I didn't think so either until we made our wedding guest list a few years ago.) While they may not be super-close to me, I at least want to know what's going on in their lives -- when they get married, have kids, etc. That's why I keep up with their Facebook/MySpace profiles.

It's nearly impossible to expect that ALL of those acquaintances will be perfectly squeaky clean people. If they are, that's actually a negative sign to me. It shows that you don't network with people that are different than you. And isn't that what you'll probably find in the work world -- people that think differently and act differently than you do?

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm more squeaky clean than wild -- and my close friends are the same. But my network of acquaintances spans all sorts of lifestyles. And I think most people (including employers) understand and accept that -- because they're the same way!

This is a problem I grappled with for years but the advent of the social networking sites has forced me to give up the struggle. My world hasn't collapsed yet.

I have the mixed blessing of a distinctive name.

I also have a career in which conventional business (retail plus mail order marketing, then traditional media the new media, and these days the obvious combination of that lot via e-commerce) has been entwined with deep involvement in one form of alternative culture (skateboarding).

As you will imagine, one aspect of this means that I have two sets of friends and colleagues who could be expected to view each other with suspicion or even hostility.

The distinctive name meant that occasionally people would make the connection in some way before it became so easy to do so. "You don't look a bit like I expected" said one potential client when I walked into the room.

It never really caused much of a problem. In fact it was often a talking point. But I tried to keep the two separate.

When Facebook came along, I thought for a while and then decided to let go. I've been delighted by the number of friend requests I've received from some of the original skateboard people and am fascinated by what they're all up to in their adult lives. Some of them are fairly hairy and possibly have some slightly alarming connections. Others are now more conventional than 50 year old pillars of the retail establishment.

Perhaps one of the benefits of the social networking phenomenon will be broadening of everyone's understanding of how different and yet the same we all are -- in the same way as cheap travel did not so long ago? We will get used to it and probably be better for it.

In Louis MacNeice's words:
"World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural."

Hello Miss Jenifer,

My internet name is google mom,
and your article is right to the point.
It is one of the most important aspects
of ...how to use the social network
community. In a clean...correct matter.
You can build a nice group of decent like minded internetmarketers.
But you never can stop the flow what
comes in for fun or don't have the
Respect for the one they maybe hurt in
long run.Community is open and every person is welcome.

Picked some pieces from your articel
and you can find it on
Social Network-Connections-Never to Old...with your name.

Thank you

the best thing to do is if you have a personal non related to work profile, dont mix it up and do not use the same sign up email you give to work. It's really that simple. But you know what? think of all the people who signed your yearbooks when in school before social networking, Im sure they were not all friends or up and up straight laced people. Perhaps no one should be taking it serious in the first place.

Great post Jennifer! It is an important issue and I like your post on it. Social networking has made people crazy but the fact is that it has ended the PRIVACY of people. Social networking sites must take some solid steps to solve this problem. If they don’t secure their sites then definitely they’ll have to lose their customers.

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