Lab organs and keg-stands: practicing smart online image branding

January 12th, 2011 by Julia Ramsey

A Kansas City nursing student recently sparked controversy by posting a Facebook picture of herself with with human placenta in the context of a lab dissection. Doyle Byrnes, a 22-year-old senior, appears smiling broadly and leaning over the specimen while wearing scrubs and a stethoscope, with no visible shenanigans or humorous posing. Despite the innocuousness of the picture her school promptly booted her out, along with three other students who had taken pictures but not posted them on the Internet. Byrnes won the ensuing lawsuit to reinstate her enrollment, but under the grounds that the instructor had given the students incorrect approval; a formal judgment hasn’t been made on the ethics of the case or as to whether publishing a picture of a donated organ was punishable under set-down academic or medical grounds. Although the student’s education will survive intact, she has the story– and all of the ensuing publicity– attached to her name and career record forever.

This is a pretty typical Facebook story, right? Person updates with an ill-advised photo or a slip of the tweet, and it translates to career consequences that can be both severe and long-lasting. (There’s already some fervor about the personal consequences of social media– the cyber-schadenfreude market has been well-cornered by sites like failbook.com or Fix My Facebook.) Contemporary sociality has as much to do with online interaction and sharing as it does with face-to-face time, which has become true for search engines as well– increasingly in online services, social results are accurate results. Essentially, Faceboook has become something like a search engine for people; it’s nearly universal (are you on Facebook? How many people that you know aren’t?), thoroughly multi-faceted in its search parameters and more often than not offers up a wealth of information that isn’t available on a resume or in a professional environment. At the end of the day (and particularly into the evening), it’s crucial to remember the importance of keeping your online life in accordance with your professional one.

I’m of the generation that started using the ‘book when it was in its infancy and still required a college-domain email address for access. Longstanding dorkiness has ensured that my requisite drunken pictures don’t contain anything too scandalous, and I’ve long since stopped using it for anything besides keeping in touch with college friends and the occasional gratuitous plug for my magazine, but it seems that the lesson of online discretion is one that’s missed by many. Moreover, its increased usage in the last few years has proven that one’s online identity is no longer easily separable from the real thing. Online actions can have real consequences. The precise numbers reported vary, but surveys indicate a dramatically increasing number of employers research job candidates on Facebook and aren’t shy about declining employment if the profile isn’t up to snuff. Don’t think that you can hide by simply using a fake moniker — with Facebook’s detailed search parameters (expounded upon by Anthony in a previous post), it’s difficult to make a profile that isn’t searchable, to some degree, by the information that makes you you.

OOPS!

While all this isn’t necessarily a sign that you need to put your online identity on lockdown, de-tag all photographs and limit your tweets to “Eating dinner!” and “Good night!”, it should be a wake-up call for those who have assumed that their online identity was discrete from their real one. Thankfully, privacy settings have evolved along with the intricacy of the service itself, letting users customize what can be seen at different levels of access. And that itself may be the key to the whole thing: a potential employee who doesn’t have the common sense to limit their snapshots of private lab specimens (or illegal shenanigans, or extreme alcohol use, or…) to a small circle of approved personal friends probably doesn’t have the kind of common sense an employer is looking for anyway. Think of your profile page as your personal brand, and the appearance and quality of your profile as SEOing to potential professional contacts. Would you hire a mechanic who rItEs HiS sIneS liKe DIs?!?!??? Would a hair salon gain credibility by publishing pictures of their stylists doing sake bombs while trimming each others’ bangs? Probably not. The best method of keeping your online image safe is to either apply meticulous thought to your privacy settings or simply — as painful as it may be — prune your profile in accordance with professional and social standards.

So after your next photo op with a large chunk of human placenta, no matter how educational or amusing the resulting picture may be, give some thought to its potential audience. Although it started as a free-for-all college kid project, Facebook is, for better or for worse, the home base for online personal information. What goes on the Internet connected with your name is pretty much there for all eternity, so practice smart branding and make your online image as important as your real one.