Friday, 28 November 2008

Notes on the internet, privacy, and political correctness - part I: social collaboration platforms and Human Resources departments

I have had several discussions and coffee break talks recently about the internet, the personal information people put there, privacy, political correctness etc. In essence they are all about how open and freely we should report from ourselves, e.g. in blogs like this one.

That's an interesting question, for sure. The internet, in particular web 2.0, is changing our lives and the way we communicate and present ourselves. What is good, what is bad? What are the ethics for our virtual lives.

In the coming weeks I will make a couple of posts on this topics. Loosely connected notes with reflections on the internet and the social consequences. Below you find part one. What I can already tell now: My basic thesis goes along the following:
(1) In the internet you find exactly the same patterns of behaviour as in real life, i.e. you have extroverts and introverts, excentrics and conservatives, etc. This is, however, not to say that an excentric in virtual life will necessarily be an exentric in real life, as well; and
(2) The internet and the personal information available in the web create a level of knowledge about individuals similar - but not identical in character - to the information your close neighbourhood has got. People who live virtual lives live in a global village.

Part I: Social collaboration platforms and Human Resources departments

A coffee break discussion the other day. I think it was me who mentioned Facebook. None of my colleagues had a profile in facebook. Some of them were registered in Xing. None of them used LinkedIn. In general, there was high scepticism about social collaboration platforms and about uploading information about oneself to the web.

My point was that it has, for sure, to be a personal and deliberate decision what you publish about yourself and in which way, e.g. have pictures you post visible to the world or to registered members of a platform only or to registered friends of you only. But I believe that this no less true and valid in real life, either.

Now one guy raised the topic that so many young people, to his mind, don't differentiate what they put on the web. But that this uncontrolled sharing of information could have very negative consequences. E.g. when someone applies for a job. Every Human Resources (HR) person can find all information on the web in seconds. And if there are pictures of the applicant lying drunk on a carpet or half naked or whatever this would certainly have negative effects. The conclusion was: too many poeple are not careful enough and don't see how much they can hurt themselves when putting stuff up on the web.

Now, you may already imagine, I did not agree. Not entirely, at least. I don't deny that there might be people - be it in Human Resources departments or wherever - who search the internet for information that compromises a person, in the HR case an applicant. If the HR person is sceptical about a candidate or if a strong selection process needs to be followed this is certainly used as a tool to get rid of some of the applicants - in the same way as the proper handwriting or such things were used in the olden days.

However, I am pretty optimistic that, first, the younger people in HR departments will be as familiar with all kinds of social collaboration platforms as the applicants and will have quite a different attitude towards them and towards using them than the older generation might have.

And secondly, the really good people looking for a job will simply not accept a job offer from a company whose HR department searches around in the web to find something that might shed a less good light on the respective candidate. The really good people will just say 'Sorry, if you use such methods I must be wrong in this company'.

So I am pretty optimistic that this issue will be a non-issue in the medium term. People will live their virtual lives and post information about themselves in some way, some more careful and reserved, others with the full vivacity of their temper. And noone who is clever enough of moving round in the virtual hemispheres will use the information he finds their against others - at least not more than to the extend that people do in real lives and real-life situations, as well.

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