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:
Long-Lost Friends With Scanners
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."
Contacts With an Axe to Grind
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.
Suddenly, my profile page filled with a stream of insults, vitriol and attacks against various religions, states and social demographics, courtesy of those two short-fused friends.
I couldn't hit the "delete" button fast enough.
Lesson learned: Unless you want to play referee, avoid posting links to articles on hot-button topics on your Facebook page. Either that, or be prepared to delete friends who don't know when to put a sock in it.
The Office Whiner
Just as badmouthing managers and customers in the offline world can cost you your job, so too can eviscerating your employer and clientele online.
I thought we'd firmly established this fact earlier in the decade, after witnessing countless bloggers lose their jobs for writing scathing posts about their employers and co-workers. But apparently, the 13 cabin crew members of Virgin Atlantic who were fired in October for trashing the airline's clientele and safety standards -- on a Facebook group -- didn't get that memo.
We all piss and moan about work. I was just whining about a client five minutes ago (no, not you, ABC), and I'm sure I'll find at least 11 other things to complain about before the day's over.
But if you too need to blow off steam, I suggest you avoid doing it on Facebook (or for that matter, anywhere else online), as doing so is pretty much the equivalent of e-mailing your current or future boss a list of gripes about what you do for a living. I also suggest taking a careful look at the topics being discussed on any Facebook group page before you join it, just to be safe.
If I've raised your hackles and have you worried about whether and how your Facebook persona appears to the general public -- and most important, to current and potential employers -- spend some time adjusting your privacy settings. For added reassurance, do a Google search on yourself, including a search on Google Images .
Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go delete some incriminating Facebook photos.
This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.
Michelle Goodman is a freelance journalist, author and former cubicle dweller. Her books — "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube" and "My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire" (October 2008) -- offer an irreverent take on the traditional career guide. More tips on career change, flex work and the freelance life can be found on her blog, Anti9to5Guide.com.