Social Media: Six Ways to Protect Today’s You and Tomorrow’s You

Ruth Binger

By Ruth Binger

Thanks to an exponential growth rate in technology, the Internet has changed the world and how we communicate with each other.  In 1995, 16 million people used the Internet.  Last year, 2 billion people used the Internet and in 2020 it is predicted that the number will be over 5 billion.

Google, a 12-year-old company, has certainly fueled this growth.  Social media platforms have also supercharged Internet usage.  Facebook claims to have over 800 million active subscribers, LinkedIn claims 85 million subscribers and YouTube has over 100 million videos online.

However, the way we relate to and judge each other, whether it is for employment, relationships, or credit history, has not changed.  We are all trying to predict each other’s future behavior for the relationship(s) and transactions we seek.

Facebook purports to be worth $104 billion with its purchase of Instagram.  Why is it worth so much?  Because companies are spending over $2 billion per year to collect information from social media outlets about what we as consumers want.  Our behavior and our opinions can be measured in fine detail as we post and that behavior can be monetized.  For example, it is estimated that your personal/buying information is worth $50 to $500 to Google, depending upon how much you spend.  On Twitter, each of your followers, assuming you have a large following, could be worth as much as $2.50 each per month.  In short, personal data greases the Internet.  The data we share (names, addresses, pictures, precise locations, and links) helps companies target advertising based not only on demographic but also on personal opinion and desires.

What does all of this information mean to you as an individual? Technology rules will continue to change, so you need to be vigilant. It is important for you to keep up with the positives and negatives of the rapidly changing technology. Right now, social media is at its height but it is designed for websites. That is predicted to change as the world moves to smartphones.  Nearly $1 million worth of features come with any smartphone and there are a billion smartphones in the world.  Within the next decade, 6 billion people will have a constant connection to the Internet.  This explains why Facebook recently bought Instagram, a mobile app company, for $1 billion. Facebook wants to conquer the smartphone market and not be left behind. 

So, focusing on social media, what is it really?  Social media is any web-based platform designed for online collaboration and interaction in a public space.  It is a free tool in your toolbox that, like fire, can either warm or burn up your life if it is not used skillfully, carefully and thoughtfully.

When you engage in social media, you are creating the dreaded “permanent record” with instantaneous and world-wide dissemination.  More troubling, your information is being increasingly archived, making it available indefinitely, even when it is removed by you when you are much wiser with a more layered and nuanced personality (see Wayback Machine a/k/a the Internet Archive). For example, the Library of Congress has acquired the entire Twitter archive.  Searchability, compounded by our general ignorance and failure to keep abreast of changes, has created the end of forgetting.

Social media users think less about what they will post and disclose more.  What causes this blurring of personal and professional lives is in dispute.  One theory is the online disinhibition effect.  John Suler of Rider University argues that we are social creatures who evolved to communicate in person.  When cues as to status and hierarchy are eliminated, the online experience feels like a peer relationship and thus we tend to withhold our judgment and “spill” or “dish.”

Use social media without caution or discretion, and your digital gaffes could cost you your job, damage your company’s reputation, and/or land you in the criminal justice system.   Anthony Weiner, the former Democratic New York Congressmen, resigned a $174,000 job after sending a sexually explicit photo of himself to a college student on Twitter. The NBA fined Miami Heat team owner, Micky Arison, $500,000 for commenting on the collective bargaining process.  Robert Murdoch and some of Scotland Yard’s highest ranking officers in the News of the World phone hacking scandals are facing criminal prosecution.

To protect yourself as an individual or employee in the social media area, follow these tips:

1.  Review the “Terms of Use” on Internet sites (e.g., LinkedIn, Facebook, etc.).

  • Determine the level(s) of privacy and whether you own what you post.  Privacy settings vary but they are not in your favor.
  • Use privacy settings religiously and constantly review the ever-changing “Terms of Use.”

2.  Stop leaving a trail on the Internet. 

  • Do not give your life away.  You leave a trail on the Internet to your personal life and your every predisposition.  This affects your ability to obtain credit, employment, housing, good credit checks and a myriad of necessary life tools.
  • Use Firefox’s “do not track” option and realize that autofill functions are track functions.

3.  Do not mix work and personal.

  • Have a separate smart phone for your personal use.  If you have a Twitter account for the purpose of marketing your employer’s products and services and your employer is actively involved in its creation, management and operation, be aware that your employer may have a good claim to ownership of the Twitter account.
    • For example, PhoneDog, an interactive mobile news and reviews web site, sued Noah Kravitz, a former employee, and claimed that the ex-employee’s Twitter account should be returned to it because it constituted a misappropriation of trade secrets and damaged the company’s business, goodwill and reputation.  The Northern District of California has not dismissed the claim and the case is proceeding.
    • Employers have also made claims for LinkedIn accounts for the very same reason.
    • Further, your Tweets on behalf of your employer can leave your employer open to vicarious liability.  In Spooner v. Associated Press, the NBA sued Associated Press and one of its spot writers for defamation.  The writer’s tweet allegedly implied that the referee had engaged in game fixing.

4.  Judgment, Judgment, Judgment.

  • Use your best judgment and consider whether griping on social media about your clients / employers / parents / co-workers / spouse / ex-spouse / children / etc. is a wise practice and a good investment.  Just because you can, and it may be legal in certain circumstances, does not mean it is wise and that it will not come back to haunt you in the future.  The world pays highly for those who exercise good judgment and your permanent social media history may take you out of the running for work opportunities.

5.  Do not conduct personal business at work.

  • Your employer, with appropriate policies and notices, can review every keystroke you take on its server, even when you are checking your personal email.
  • If you are not paid to market on social media, stay off social media sites while at work.  You are, in effect, stealing your company’s time by making yourself non-productive, and, therefore, expendable.

6.  You are paying for Facebook/Yahoo/Skype.

  • Your mother was right: nothing is free.
    • In exchange for a free social media platform, you are paying by providing details of your personal life and the personal life of your friends.
    • Some of the most popular apps seek email addresses, current location and sexual preference of not only you but your friends, among other things.

Slow down, take a breath, and be strategic in your use of the Internet.  Do not set yourself on fire and create a permanent record of that damage.

For information on how to “Muddy Your Tracks on the Internet,” read this article from the New York Times.

Posted by Attorney Ruth Binger. Binger serves both emerging and mature businesses concentrating in corporate law, intellectual property and technology law, digital media law, and labor and employment law. Her commitment to the success of small to medium-sized businesses, and her understanding of multi-faceted issues inherent in operations, are what distinguish Binger’s practice.

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