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Why employers and police are looking at your MySpace profile

MySpace is a peculiar phenomenon. Some sites, such as the dating site Match.com, are created with the intention of complete strangers viewing the profiles of other strangers. While there is certainly a voyeuristic element, the idea is to find those who you would actually care to meet. Other sites, such as Facebook.com, are fairly confidential. Once you are a user’s classmate or friend, you can see their profile, but otherwise the majority of pages remain private aside from the most basic of information. It is designed to sustain communication between those who already know each other.

MySpace sits in a hazy middle ground. It appeals to all kinds of Internet users; the site attracts those who want to stay in touch, those who want to seek out relationships and meet others with common interests, as well as the average voyeur. Unless you expressly denote your profile as private, it remains visible for all to see.

This ambiguity of purpose has certainly worked to the benefit of MySpace. It is currently the biggest social networking venue on the Internet. As of October 19th, the number of MySpace profiles stood at over 121 million. There are 1,683 MySpace users who declare themselves as current students at SAIC; that’s well over half of the student population. In addition, there are 1,461 profiles attributed to SAIC alumni. All of the student MySpace users who responded to an F Newsmagazine survey stated that they checked their profiles daily. Holly Foster, a painting and writing student at SAIC, said of MySpace, “It’s lame, but whatever, I’m addicted.”

Students had a high level of curiosity as to who was looking at their MySpace page, as do many users of the site. The last few months have seen heavy online advertising for “MySpace Trackers,” html coding that you can place into your profile that will record the I.P. addresses of visitors to your page. Often, the motivations of those looking at the pages of people who are not their “friends” are relatively harmless–often individuals looking into the life of an old acquaintance or current crush, trying to find out who they are dating and the like.

However, increasingly, MySpace profiles are being used for less social purposes. MySpace’s astronomical growth has led the site to be taken seriously by many companies, and changes to the site have made it far easier to search the content of profiles. Businesses and journalists are using the site to find out about youth trends, while employers, educational institutions and law enforcement officials are starting to use the site as a means of finding information about specific individuals.

News Corporation, a multi-billion dollar multi-media corporation founded by Australian newspaper mogul Rupert Murdoch, bought out MySpace last year. At the time, significant concerns were raised over how to make MySpace more profitable. Compared to the money that recent online take-overs have attracted, most notably Google’s acquisition of YouTube for $1.65billion, News Corp paid the relatively paltry sum of $580 million for MySpace. This reflected, in part, the difficulty of MySpace as a financial venture. Dick Parsons, chief executive of Time Warner, said at a media conference in early October that the sale of YouTube was “a knockout price. Some of these sites are working, most are not… For us and traditional media companies, this would be a tough tough price.”

So while Google may be able to afford to take the gamble of investing in improvements to YouTube, MySpace is still suffering from low returns. MySpace is so vast and random that it is hard to provide targeted advertising, so MySpace makes very little money from the pay-per-click ads that irritatingly appear in the middle of your home page. Wired reported last year that while “a top-priced Google ad… is valued in dollars per click… a MySpace ad clocks in around a hundredth of a cent per view.”

News Corp found a way to turn one of MySpace’s original features–the one that enables musicians to use the site for free self promotion– into a way of making money for the Corporation, if not MySpace itself. News Corp also owns the Fox Television Networks, and shortly after their purchase of MySpace, teen-friendly Fox programs such as “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy” were sprouting MySpace pages, as were many 20th Century Fox films. It’s rather like being in a fan club, but everyone can see you’re a member. Increasingly, companies have realized that MySpace is a promoter’s dream, and a very cheap one, as MySpace has yet to begin charging its users. Companies can create fan pages for limitless products. Even the U.S. government has jumped on the MySpace trend; the Marines have a MySpace page, although you have the option to “contact a recruiter” rather than “send a message.” What was once an informal method of self-promotion has now become a credible and effective form of marketing.

Something else happened when News Corp bought MySpace: they entered into a deal with Google. In August of this year, the Financial Times reported that “Google has… guaranteed MySpace… $900 million to carry the search engine on its site until 2010.” Google gets the potential benefit of being able to carry its targeted advertising to the younger age group which frequents MySpace, and those users can better search the profiles of others with Google’s features. In addition to this, simple Google.com searches for individuals will also often produce their MySpace page. Chase Thompson, a painter who graduated from SAIC in 1998, admitted that he changed the content of his profile because of this. “Once MySpace became Google searchable, I toned down the content,” he said. “For about two months, MySpace seemed like an amazing thing. This avenue to network with like minds, reconnect with friends, and possibly use it to collaborate on long-distance projects. But like any good thing, once the lowest common denominator finds out it’s where all the ‘cool’ people hang, it has become a terrible monkey on my back that I can’t get rid of.”

Here develops a problem: where once awkward teens and wannabe scenesters were the only ones with MySpace vanity problems, companies have also developed an obsessive complex. While a given company may enjoy the free advertising that a MySpace profile can provide, they also don’t want to be embarrassed or discredited by the content of a profile by someone who identifies themselves as an employee of that company.

It is generally assumed that employers will monitor their employees while at work. This can be done in any number of ways within the bounds of the law. Often, this occurs by monitoring office email and phone usage, or by watching staff on hidden security cameras. Occasionally, employers discipline employees for their behavior outside of work, although usually only for behavior which reflects poorly upon the organization for which they are working. In a case that hit the news in June, a temporary worker for Microsoft lost his job for embarrassing the company with a picture he took and posted online. Newsday reported “Michael Hanscom… spotted a stack of Apple computers on a Microsoft loading dock back in 2003, shot a picture and posted it to his personal blog. That brought a hurried end to his work at Microsoft.”

Recruiters can also search the Internet for information on potential employees. Employers have started to turn to sites such as MySpace and Facebook to find out about job candidates. This can be both a positive or a negative thing. The Tampa Tribune quoted Jedd Benjamin, a Miami-based interactive creative designer for big-name clients such as Volkswagen, who said, “Sometimes these sites are better than the resumes, because we figure out what a person is really like.” If your profile demonstrates your creativity, then that’s probably a good thing. If it demonstrates what you look like passed out drunk in someone’s bathroom, you may not appear so employable. One case reported by the New York Times in June saw a small consulting company in Chicago which was looking to hire a summer intern decide not to hire the individual because of his web page. “The company’s president went online to check a promising candidate who had just graduated from the University of Illinois. At Facebook… the executive director found the candidate’s Web page with a description of his interests: ‘smokin’ blunts,’ shooting people and obsessive sex, all described in vivid slang. It did not matter that the student was clearly posturing. He was done.”

So the question is, is it within an employer’s rights to examine an employee in this manner? Laura Lorber, managing editor of CareerJournal.com, believes it is, and more so, it’s their responsibility to do so. In an interview with CNN, Lorber stated, “From the job candidate’s point of view, I’m sure that a lot of people think that this is an invasion of their personal privacy. But if you look at it from the employer’s perspective, it’s about reducing risk. You want to make sure that you get the right person in the job… You’re doing your reference checking. So… you might actually uncover some kind of ethical issue that might come up later.”

Educational institutions remain uncertain about their role in the world of online networking. MySpace itself will remove the delete the profile of any user found to be under the age of 14, although there is no way for the site to independently verify that users are being honest about their age when they sign up. Some grade schools have taken severe action to try and prevent students from using sites such as MySpace. The San Diego Tribune reported, “As the reach of social-networking sites grows, schools are debating how far they should go in controlling student online conduct, but at the same time respecting First Amendment rights.” Wendy Wardlow, principal of Del Mar Heights Elementary School in San Diego asked “every parent to sign an agreement that included a commitment to monitor their children’s computer use at home to prevent cyber-bullying, online gossip and the use of obscene and profane language on the Internet. Students also signed it.”

In the midst of wiretapping scandals, it is of little surprise that the U.S. government is also monitoring MySpace activity. The Daily Telegraph in London reported a case in Sacramento, California in which “a 14-year-old school girl was pulled out of her biology class and questioned by Secret Service agents after posting comments critical of President George W. Bush on the networking site MySpace… The agents were responding to an online collage she created showing a knife stabbing Mr. Bush beneath the words ‘Kill Bush.’”

Facebook.com was originally intended for campus networking; as such it has become an easy method by which to incriminate students. There are increasing reports of campus police and law enforcement officials using online networking sites to connect students to crimes. In some cases a student’s profile has been used merely to determine identity. In other cases, the content of profiles has been used to determine the guilt of someone suspected of an infraction. So far, the majority of reported instances are of students guilty of minor misdemeanors.

The Northerner, an independent student publication at Northern Kentucky University stated last year that four Northern Kentucky University students “received University Code of Conduct violations when administrators saw pictures posted on Facebook.com that depicted them drinking in a Kentucky Hall dorm room. The four students received a $50 fine, one year of probation on campus and were forced to attend a class about the dangers of binge drinking.”

The Daily Illini, the paper of the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, discovered

“16 [campus] police officers [have] accounts on Facebook… None of the profiles state the owner is a police officer at the University, although some state they are U. Illinois Staff.” Through this, the campus police are able to overcome the privacy settings of Facebook. Two students from the University of Illinois were arrested using evidence gained from Facebook. The students, Adam Gartner and Marc Chiles, were arrested after the two were walking near an intersection and “Chiles decided to urinate in public. When an officer approached them, Chiles ran away and left Gartner with the officer. Gartner said he lied to the police officer, saying he did not know Chiles’ last name.” Rather than letting them get away with it, the officer answered an incoming call on Gartner’s cell phone, and from the caller, discovered Chiles’ last name. “The officer said he could make a Facebook check to see if the two knew each other.” He did just that, and Gartner received a $195 ticket for obstruction of justice, while Chiles was fined $145 for public urination.

Colleges as well as companies are concerned with how they are perceived online. USA Today reported that Chicago’s Loyola University is “forbidding their athletes to belong [to Facebook].” The report went on to describe the case of “LSU swimmers Eddie Kenney and Matt Coenen [who] were kicked off the team after athletics officials discovered they belonged to a Facebook affinity group that put up disparaging comments about swim coaches.”

Yet at the same time these sites are a valid way of contacting current and potential students. The MySpace message feature has, arguably, surpassed the email. Jared Larson, an SAIC student in Film, Video and New Media, described MySpace as “like an advanced email service, but annoyingly owned by Rupert Murdoch.”

One college has created a MySpace profile of its own. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that Harcum College, a small institution in Pennsylvania, has 160 friends, out of the 200 registered MySpace users at the school. There’s also a picture of a bunny on the profile, with the words “College prepares you for the real world. Which also sucks.” The school’s page was created by the their assistant director of public relations and marketing, who had found that students were “paying no attention to the college email newsletter. They were not even showing up for ice cream socials.” How effective this method of communication is remains unclear. One Harcum student told The Chronicle of Higher Education, “I’m a friend, but I’ve never actually been to the site.” Meanwhile Pennsylvania State University has been “trying different ways to reach students, including podcasts, RSS feed and Web video clips.” The risk is, that in the same way a film, a band or a product you don’t care for will attempt to befriend you on MySpace, a college page is simply another intrusion into a student’s private life, and a visible reminder that the college administration can see photos of that bachelor party last weekend, should they be posted on your MySpace, Facebook, blog or any other venue on the internet.

As online networking develops an increasingly significant presence in mainstream culture, how one uses the Internet to distribute personal information becomes a significant test of personal judgment. Eric Schmidt, chief executive of Google, regularly describes the company’s aim as a quest to “organize the world’s information,” and the last blog post you wrote is another piece of information to be digitally indexed and easily found. Before the rise of Google, MySpace, Friendster, and other networking sites could be considered “underground,” and so could also be assumed to be relatively private. Now that these profiles are an open book, so it may be worth doing a little editing, and perhaps changing your privacy settings.

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