I've written plenty of articles in the past about online reputation management and the need for small businesses to focus on how their actions can be portrayed online. I've even talked some about the impact of online reputation mangement for individuals. What I haven't considered though is how the absolute explosion of social networks may be impacting the next generation of small business owners even before they've made it out of high school.

Most adults are now well aware that anything they say or write online can come back to haunt them, but most of the school-age population isn't quite as familiar with the idea of "consequences for your actions," especially in the realm of the online world. That's why I found an article over at USA Today to be so interesting. In "What You Say Online Could Haunt You" journalists Janet Kornblum and Mary Beth Marklein discuss the world of problems that has started to arise for teenagers and college students that are making a name for themselves on social networks without thinking through the long-term implications.

From the article:

As more and more students turn to websites such as Facebook and MySpace to chronicle their lives and socialize with friends, they also are learning that their words and pictures are reaching way beyond the peers for whom they were intended. And some, like Guinn, are paying a price. In the past few months, college, high school and even middle school students across the USA have been suspended or expelled, thrown off athletic teams, passed over for jobs and even arrested based on their online postings.

Students tend to see these environments as "private spaces" where they can post sometimes suggestive pictures of themselves, rant about friends and teachers and share their habits with regards to drug and alcohol use, sexual activity and more. What few of them seem to understand is that these spaces are wide open networks where their postings can be read by adults, teachers, even future employers.

In fact, the article is rife with examples of students being denied college admission, expelled from schools, kicked off of atheltic teams and even turned down for jobs because of what they've posted in these online communities.

It's interesting to note that these types of repercussions are not resulting in an understanding of the need to be a bit more careful about what one says in public...instead, young adults that use these networks are reacting with outrage over what they perceive as their own private space.

"Facebook is for the students," says Purdue freshman Anthony Cometa, who recalls being outraged when he read in his school paper that police were getting training about Facebook so they could investigate complaints about students using the service to harass each other. Police on other campuses have shut down parties with underage drinking after learning about them on Facebook.

"I brought this up in English class, and everybody was like, 'Are you kidding me? Why are these people in our profiles?' Initially, everybody had a sense of this is their own little private thing."

It will take some time for school systems and the courts to work out exactly what rights the schools have to issue punishments based on student's online activity, but there's no doubting the rights or ability of a future employer to make judgement calls based on these postings. Ultimately, that might be the one thing that has the best chance of making these posters put a little more thought into the online reputation that they are creating.

Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.

March 9, 2006

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.

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