It's easy to pass off posting Facebook photos of yourself doing beer bongs in your birthday suit as the act of someone who's clueless, arrogant or 22. Yet last year a university president caught some flack for mistaking the Internet for her living room and posting a couple of lewd and racially insensitive photos on her Facebook page.
For the sake of argument, though, let's assume that you've learned from the social networking snafus of such hapless professionals. And let's assume that, wanting to reconnect with childhood friends and get in on the timesucking fun, you've joined the growing ranks of Facebook users born in the '60s or '70s.
If you're anything like I was when I set up my Facebook profile earlier this year, you probably think all it takes to keep your digital footprint employer-friendly are a few privacy settings and a healthy dose of good judgment.
But one rogue friend in your online social network can blow that whole theory out of the water. Behold:
Just because you didn't grow up documenting your every cough and sneeze online doesn't mean those incriminating high school and dorm room photos can't come back to haunt you.
"I just had an old sorority sister join Facebook yesterday and post a bunch of really bad pledge photos," said a reader of this column I'll call "Stella," who's now a 36-year-old publicist in Silicon Valley, Calif., and a mother of three. "You can now find me squatting to pee behind a fraternity house, shot-gunning a beer and flashing my top half for a pledge class photo."
Because a lot of Stella's clients and colleagues also use Facebook, she begged her long-lost sorority sister to take the photos down.
"She thought I was being paranoid, but I don't care," Stella said. "Even though my own privacy settings are tight, I don't trust my friends' privacy settings."
"Jerri," an out-of-work journalist in her 40s, recently hit a similar digital snag while job hunting in New York.
"One Facebook friend starting posting pictures of me in the '80s, and in and every other photo, I'm holding a glass of wine, holding a beer, smoking a joint," said the former punk rocker.
"I got on Facebook one night and I untagged myself in about 18 photos," she said.
"On the one hand, it's like, 'Oh, I've lived.'" she said. But on the other hand, "some of my Facebook contacts are local professionals I've been networking with. All they're looking for is a reason not to hire you."
There are, of course, other pitfalls to online posses. A lot of my Facebook friends are writers and social justice types, which means I'm used to seeing their opinionated status updates on my Facebook feed. All of them are people I have a personal or professional relationship with. There isn't a stranger in the bunch.
In the real world, my friends and colleagues know what it means to engage in a healthy debate over social and political issues, no matter how differing their views. You won't see anyone throwing off their jacket, taking out their earrings and beating the crap out of anyone at a party in my home.
Naively, I imagined the same would be true on my Facebook page.
That is, until a link to an article I posted during the presidential campaign led to a digital brawl between two of my Facebook friends who'd never met in the real world.