Facebook Serves as Own Example of How Web Bites Back

What Happens When You Post Something Without Thinking It Through

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Facebook inadvertently made the news on President's Day when Consumerist reported a change in the social networks's terms of service. In short, Facebook's new TOS indicates that it owns all the data that users upload to their system. In fact, it goes a step further to suggest that the company may "retain archived copies of your User Content" even if you terminate your Facebook account. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg felt it necessary to personally respond to the concerns, noting that Facebook's terms are consistent with many web-service providers.

To me, the issue here isn't whether Facebook's privacy policy is appropriate. That's a question that is already being chewed over by countless blogs and news sites right now. Thinking that deleting a picture from Facebook or a post from your blog erases it from the internet is naïve at best. I suspect many people will realize that it's a whole lot harder to make dubious content go away than it was to upload in the first place. Facebook's new TOS merely reflects this reality in the inartful, insulting language that only a team of lawyers could craft.

The problem that Facebook is facing at this point is one of perception. The company did the bare minimum to publicize its TOS changes: It mentioned them on its blog, which most users are unaware of. As a result, the company appeared to be sneaking an unpopular change into their TOS in the dead of night.

What Facebook forgot is that whether we are sending out "official" information through the auspices of a press release or casually dishing about a meeting on Twitter, it's all out there and it's all discoverable –- often without going further than an initial search on Google.

Regardless of your individual perspective, the one certainty is that there has never been a lower barrier to produce and distribute content for others to see. With that emerges a new responsibility for people (and companies as well) to think about their own digital footprint. While I'd like to think that it's common sense, we've all seen that's not the case. The irony is that Facebook sent up a red flag to its users saying, "Be careful what information you surface online and how you surface it" and then promptly fell into the same trap that its TOS was warning users against.

I've personally seen numerous recent examples where thoughtlessly posting information on a social network has led to problems either personally or professionally for the postee.

Exhibit A: A friend recently told me about a candidate she was interviewing for a job. The candidate seemed great in person. As a formality, they were checking her references, as well her social profile -- now a routine stop in many companies, including mine. When they got to her Facebook profile, they found a message from one the candidate's friends asking, "You wanna meet for drinks?" To which the candidate responded, "Sure, gotta go meet the whores at BrandX first though." Needless to say, she didn't get the job.

Exhibit B: The gentleman from Ketchum PR who not only managed to insult his client, but the entire city of Memphis by Twittering "True confession but I'm in one of those towns where I scratch my head and say, 'I would die if I had to live here.'" The problem is he was flying there at that moment to meet with FedEx, a huge client that is practically synonymous with Memphis. That message probably took two seconds to think of and another eight to type. In just 10 seconds of effort, he has a blemish on his resume forever, and caused an issue for his company with a major client. Any potential client, employer or business colleague that looks for him on Google will get page of search results dominated by commentary about his lapse in judgment.

I can go on with endless examples, including ones that might seem too ridiculous to be true -- like the 20-somethings that were arrested in the Bahamas just last week for grilling and eating an Iguana (an endangered species). How'd they get caught? They posted their photos to Facebook, and authorities quickly found them. Surely, people operating on that rarified level of stupidity should get caught, but the bottom line is that people need to realize that what we once knew as privacy has changed forever, especially online.

All of these examples may seem like casual activities but they all involve sharing of information, or data if you will, that once unleashed can wreak all kinds of havoc.

What does this all mean to companies that are taking their tentative first steps towards engaging with customers via social media? The next time your company, or an individual representing your company, writes on someone's Facebook wall, Twitters something or posts to a message board, stop and think about how you'd react to that content being publicly accessible down the road. Remember, digital assets live on forever, and search engines will ensure that no stone will go unturned. When you realize your skeletons can be just a Google search away, maybe it's time to take a deep breath and use some common sense.

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Josh Stylman is managing partner at Reprise Media. Follow him on Twitter @jstylman

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