Graduate wonders whether Facebook is friend or foe

3.4 million. That’s how many people will be receiving college degrees this year, according to the United States Census Bureau. And we all want the same thing: a job. Facebook has become a scary place for us job seekers. Especially for college grads who have spent the last four or five years posting pictures of wild parties and making status updates about extreme drinking habits. A potential employer’s dream.

I will be graduating in a matter of days. I’ve had a Facebook since December 2008. When I took a look back at posts I made beginning in my freshman year of college, many of them raised concern. So I began this project as a word of warning to my fellow college graduates about to enter the real world. Beware of your Facebook image.

According to the study, “I regretted it the moment I pressed share: A Qualitiative Study About Regrets on Facebook,” posts and pictures depicting drinking, drug use, sexual content, and profanity are the most commonly regretted Facebook material. The study also reported that users regretted over-sharing personal information, telling or spreading lies, and using Facebook as place to fight or argue.

Yang Wang is a researcher at Carniage Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA. He led this qualitative research about regrets on Facebook.

“We brought people into the lab we talk with them about their Facebook,” Wang said. “We ask them to open up their account, show us their pages, and recall these regrettable experiences.”

Like myself, Wang went into his study expecting to find a high rate of regret amongst Facebook users. So when I first came across this research, I was sure it would provide all the proof that I needed that Facebook is a dangerous place for budding young professionals.

“Overwhelmingly, for people who have regrets on Facebook, the frequency of conducting such regrettable behavior or actions is actually quite low,” Wang said.

If this is true, then why is it you hear a Facebook horror story at every turn? I initially began this story with one Facebook misfortune in mind.

On April 14th 2008, two University of Minnesota Duluth students publicly made racial remarks on their Facebook walls about a fellow, black classmate. The comments resulted in a huge backlash from the entire University of Minnesota community and both students faced administrative disciplinary consequences.

I wanted these girls in my story, but they wouldn’t talk.

So I perused other Facebook mishaps. I found a teacher who lost her job because of posts she made about students on her Facebook wall, and a college graduate struggling to start a career because of some questionable pictures she posted six years ago.

No one would talk. Frustrating as it may be for a journalist to hit dead ends when tracking down sources, these people showed me something.

They were willing to post comments to their Facebook for everyone to see, but wouldn’t talk about it with a person they didn’t know.

“When interviewees were asked about their regrets, they usually did not explain the nature and reasons of their regrets in detail, but rather described the regrets in general terms (e.g., I was stupid, or it was inappropriate),” Wang said. “Even when the interviewer asked follow-up questions, some interviewees seemed reluctant to participate in further discussion.”

There are these people, who’ve experienced disparagement after Facebook posts, but the commonality of situations like this is surprisingly scarce.

“The message is kind of interesting,” Wang said of his research. “Although a large percentage of Facebook users have done things they regretted, the frequency of those things is very low.”

In fact, his study found that only 23 percent of 340 study participants reported having regrets. And in most cases those regrets were a mere result of embarrassment.

My story had taken an interesting turn. Now I was thinking that maybe these people with Facebook regrets aren’t the rule, but the exception.

I needed an expert on the subject. Forbes has a list of the top 50 Social Media Experts, and Jason Falls was listed as number nine.

Jason Falls works out of Louisville, Kentucky. He founded Social Media Explorer, a site dedicated to helping individuals and businesses use Facebook effectively.

“You definitely hear more of the negative stories because if you think about it, no one ever tells you they’ve hired you because of an outstanding Facebook account,” Falls said.

Falls has made a career out of polishing social media sites to look professional and presentable. He says in many cases graduating students haven’t even thought about their social media image.

“Really the only thing you can do is go back and curate,” Falls said. “You’re probably not going to be able to get rid of all of it, there’s always a digital footprint, like a comment you left on a page, or a picture in someone else’s profile.”

What Falls says is true: all we ever hear about are the bad things that happen on Facebook. Positive experiences for Facebook users take a back seat to those who aren’t posting wisely.

“The only time you ever hear it is when someone doesn’t gets hired and they are literally told, you didn’t get the job because we looked at our Facebook stuff and your employer didn’t like it,” Falls said.

It’s common practice to track a potential employees’ social media activity. People are more searchable than ever and that can be scary.

“If you’ve gotten to your senior year and you just now realize, oh crap, maybe I shouldn’t have been swearing and posting all these pictures of drinking, maybe you ought to start a different one that’s more professional,” Falls said.

As a graduating college student, I’m very aware that potential employers will be looking into my social media sites. Falls got me thinking; maybe that isn’t such a bad thing

“Changes in Use and Perspective on Facebook,” a University of Michigan study found that while students in their first few years of college aren’t completely aware of their audience, they make changes at the right junctures.

“DiMicco and Millen [8] found that Facebook users transitioning from college to corporate settings employed various strategies to change their Facebook profiles, including making new profiles more appropriate for their new context, erasing all information from profiles.”

Facebook can be a tool. I thought it was a place that documents your mistakes, when it’s actually a platform for showing yourself off professionally. Using social media, a college graduate can choose the content that makes up their digital persona.

The beauty of social media sites is you have complete control over what goes on and what doesn’t. You have the potential to build a very likeable, hirable model for yourself.

“The few times you do ever hear about it is when someone really owns it and uses social media for the soul intent purpose of building up an online footprint so they can be hired,” Falls said.

According to the University of Michigan study, there’s evidence that at this stage in life, people smarten up. The study says that users make most changes to their social media sites when they move from one life stage or social context to another.

It also goes on to say that, “Seniors were twice as likely to report that a future employer had looked at their profile than were first year students.”

In 2006, that same study didn’t even ask users if they thought potential employers were viewing their Facebook pages. In 2007 12-percent did and in 2008 that number jumped to 18-percent. The percentage of people who had befriended professors also climbed between 2006 and 2008.

Facebook is commonly known as a social site, but there has clearly been a shift that makes Facebook a professional medium as well.

“You can post stuff about internships, class projects. It could actually end up benefiting you,” Falls said. “You can show you’ve been active and you’ve done a lot of things with school.”

Grads who clean up their profiles can take it a step further and even use them to boost their potential to perspective employers.

“A company needs to be comfortable and maybe even proud to say this is our employee,” Falls said.

If a grad wants to exercise social media sites to their full potential, they can’t just stop at cleaning up the mess. They have to turn their personal outlets into examples of their abilities and accomplishments.

I began to look for these examples. When this started I was trying to find people who’d hurt themselves with Facebook, now I was searching for people who’d been successful with social media.

Ann Handley runs a professional web blog and she is the Chief Content Officer of MarketingProfs. Handley was number two on Forbes top 50 Social Media Experts list. MarketingProfs is a site that councils a community made up of both small businesses and Fortune 500 companies on social media marketing tools.

Handley’s advice on social media was the next step in the process. Once a graduate can establish a clean social media presence, they’ve got to make it their own.

“See what people are talking about,” Handley said. “Keep up-to-date and find out what are the hot issues in whatever industry you want to get in to. Show your own expertise, start to share about who you are what you can contribute to the field.”

I’ve spent the last four years learning the ins and outs of journalism. I’ve formulated my own opinions and ideas about the profession and social media sites provide an opportunity to show off what I’ve learned.

“When you do blog, when you do write something, write something that’s really smart,” Falls said. “Think critically about issues of the day, write opinion pieces that react to the news of the day, share your observations. Get a little bit more thoughtful and analytic about the content you’re writing about, talking and thinking about. If you’re smart, people are going to notice you.”

Handley gave similar advice to all us grads, contributing strong ideas is the best way to get noticed.

“You need to think through what you’re trying to accomplish here,” Handley said. “Really make sure that your blog is going to match those goals and start to create content around issues and subjects that are relevant to that industry, otherwise you’re kind of just wasting your time there.”

According to Facebook, 900 million people have profiles on their site. In such an enormous online community, college graduates need to stand out. Social media experts urge graduates not only to clean up their Facebook act, but also to fine-tune it. Show that you’ve actually learned something in college by talking about it in place where people can access it easily.

“Establish that online presence because if you’re not publishing information online you kind of don’t exist,” Handley said. “I think anyone that’s out there looking for you, be it a prospective employer, you have to make sure that what comes up is going to impress them.”

When I asked my two social media experts to give me advice, I found that there is a pattern, a series of things that need to be addressed in order to have a clean, intelligent, and intriguing social media presence.

“Think before you post,” Falls told me.

“Start to create content,” was Handley’s advice.

I went back to see my first Facebook post, and it read “Becky Mortensen is I didn't want to write a paper so I finally gave in and got a fucking facebook.” I also found that 19 of my 25 photo albums depict either drinking or smoking or both. In 13 of them there is underage drinking.

Think before you post, indeed. Social media is a tool, use it wisely.

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