On Friday, Mark Zuckerberg and his fellow Facebook founders reaped the benefits of the company’s stock offering — but it’s Facebook’s users whose lives have truly been transformed in the last five years, as the little company that could became a global behemoth, one that in many cases knows more about you than you know about yourself.
The good news: People start relationships, find jobs, keep in touch with family members, learn new skills and figure out what products to buy, all thanks to an unprecedented and exhilarating ability to connect.
But Facebook has a dark side as well. The permanent, indelible record of people’s posted triumphs and foibles — photos, reflections and opinions people often presumed to be semi-private when they revealed them to family and friends — increasingly come back to haunt them.
Employers, law enforcement officials, landlords, lovers, spouses, stalkers, universities and other third parties make judgments about us based on what we post. For some of us, our online selves now matter more than our offline selves.
According to a study sponsored by Microsoft, 75% of companies now require human resource officials to check out a job applicant’s online presence before making a job offer. An April 2012 study by CareerBuilder found that one-third of the hiring managers who looked at a person’s online profile found a reason not to hire him or her — for example, photos of perfectly legal behavior such as a woman wearing provocative clothes or drinking alcohol.
A 24-year-old high school teacher from Atlanta took a summer vacation in Ireland and Italy and posted 700 photos. The teacher was forced to quit her job because of vacation photos that showed her sampling a beer during the Guinness factory tour and drinking wine in Italy.
And when, earlier this month, a Virginia worker was fired for “liking” his boss’s competitor on Facebook, a judge held that “likes” weren’t protected by the First Amendment.
In a troubling trend, more and more employers are asking job applicants for their Facebook passwords, so they can view what people post on their private pages and perhaps even see who their virtual friends and acquaintances are. Other prospective employers “shoulder surf,” making the job applicant log in to view his private page over his shoulder.
By peeking at an applicant’s posts and photos, employers do an end run around federal employment laws. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act prohibits an employer from asking a job applicant if she is planning to get pregnant. Yet she might have posted, “Getting married in July, thrilled to be starting a family.”