She makes her way home on the 9X, a Muni bus line of questionable sanitation, and trudges upstairs. First thing she does is open her MacBook Pro, simultaneously checks her three e-mail accounts and of course, Facebook, for any new messages or notifications. She thinks of a boy she used to date and immediately jumps to his Facebook page. She searches through his recent status updates for any incriminating evidence to reassure herself of the decision to stop seeing him. She looks through some of his posted pictures and ends up browsing through some of his friends. The weekend arrives and she is out and about at a bar. She ends up running into the boy and he introduces her to some of his friends. One happens to be someone she had found on Facebook. Josie Cabrera, 21, has found herself in an uncomfortable situation.

“It’s extremely awkward when something like this happens,” Cabrera says. “You’re standing there and get so anxious when they are talking to you. You have to try to make sure not to act like you know anything about them from Facebook otherwise they might think you’re kind of creepy.”

Not only is Facebook a popular method of keeping in touch, networking or virtually meeting someone, but there is also MySpace, LinkedIn, Friendster, Bebo, Meetup and more. This past February, The Nielsen Company reported that social media use increased to 82 percent worldwide. According to a study from Anderson Analytics, about two-thirds of social networking users will only connect with people they actually know or have met in person. However, this doesn’t mean that their privacy is secure.

Some people, such as Mozelle Thompson, former Federal Trade Commissioner and now CEO of a firm that advises Facebook on such matters as privacy, believes that privacy is not a binary matter. In a 2009 interview with Melbourne periodical The Age, he said people need to reveal “a certain amount of personal information so others can find them…and so they can know that they can trust them.”

If a person has an overwhelming amount of “friends” or people they are connected to on one of these sites, it may or may not make someone question their validity. People may wonder: do they really know that many people? Or, why are they willing to be “friends” with just anyone? At the same time, it affects whether or not someone will think you’re worth knowing.

The year is 2008 and Cabrera is living in Irvine. She scopes Craigslist looking for rooms for rent in San Francisco. When she finds one that seems like a good fit she Googles his or her name and searches for their Facebook account hoping it isn’t on a private setting. Sometimes she lucks out and finds a public account. She looks through pictures and status updates to try to get a sense of personality.

“I used Facebook a lot to ‘check out’ potential roommates before I moved up here,” Cabrera says. “For example, if I see a girl with a lot of pictures of her at clubs and bars with a lot of people, I’m probably going to think she parties a lot. Or if I see someone that has frequent status updates then I’m going to assume that person likes to talk.”

Now it is 2009, Cabrera finds employment after graduation in her field of study. Shortly after being hired, she changes her privacy settings to make her profile even more inaccessible. She does not join her company network and does not even list it on her page. The only information the public can view is her current city of residence and her AIM screen name. She deletes her LinkedIn account; it was required by her college to have one during enrollment. Cabrera estimates that she only keeps in contact with under a quarter of the amount of friends she has on Facebook, which is currently at 340.

“I’m only friends with one person from work,” Cabrera says. “I’m a very private person already and I just didn’t want my personal life to be associated with my professional life.”

Since 2008, there have been articles published regarding the use of social media sites as part of the hiring process. CareerBuilder.com reported that one in five employers use this to screen candidates.

“Millions of people are leaving personal information, online, much of which is cached and remains available via search engines even after the author has removed the web page,” said Peter Cunningham, UK country manager for Viadeo, a professional social networking site similar to LinkedIn.

Social Media Sites in the Workplace

She stole from the people she babysat for, she stole a stranger’s purse at a bar and most recently she stole from work. These are status updates on the Facebook page of one of the internship applicants Eve Batey has reviewed. Batey, 38, is the editor and publisher of the San Francisco Appeal, an online newspaper. She recalls several other stories similar to this.

“In the era of Facebook, there’s no alter ego, no double identity, not unless you really work at that,” Batey says. “You can no longer expect that different aspects of your life won’t overlap, if you put it online. Remember, when you Google someone, their Facebook profile is usually on page one.”

Batey uses Facebook and Twitter sparingly compared to some people. Batey wakes up, goes to work and checks her Twitter account once. She only logs into Facebook if she has time to answer a message sent. When she gets a friend request, it is usually from an old high school friend. She enjoys looking at pictures in an attempt to feel like she’s aged better, but other than that she doesn’t use Facebook that often. After a long day at work, she will check her Twitter account once more before going to bed. On weekends, she checks Twitter more often to make sure she knows what’s going on online and she will occasionally “tweet” when the urge strikes her. Batey sees a personal status update with too much information from one of her virtual friends and is baffled.

[pullquote author=”Eve Batey, SF Appeal”]“You can no longer expect that different aspects of your life won’t overlap, if you put it online. Remember, when you Google someone, their Facebook profile is usually on page one.”[/pullquote]

“I started personal blogging in 1997 and I was always kind of stunned by people who put ‘it all’ out there, like, how will you get a job?” Batey says.

Young Lee, 29, and Ryan Kirkman, 30, know a thing or two about Facebook. They are part of RockYou!’s business development team. RockYou! is a Bay Area-based company that provides, publishes and develops social media network services and applications for sites like Facebook and MySpace. It is safe to say that the duo have an opinion on Facebook’s potential in regards to user-privacy.

“I’ve definitely checked out an applicant’s facebook profile before or after interviewing them,” says Kirkman, Creative Director of Brand. “Or even checked out a cute girl I met. Most of the time privacy settings really prevent me from seeing much, but sometimes its interesting to see what they have decided to make publicly available.”

Lee believes any related to deeply personal information or business information should be omitted from Facebook. If you are using Facebook or Twitter for a business purpose then it should be treated as a public forum, according to Lee.

As does engineering associate, Zheng Xu, a fellow RockYou! employee. “Facebook is still public no matter how private you set it,” Xu, 31, says referring to Facebook’s illusive privacy policy.

The Facebook privacy policy states, “We keep track of some of the actions you take on Facebook, such as adding connections (including joining a group or adding a friend), creating a photo album, sending a gift, poking another user, indicating you “like” a post, attending an event, or connecting with an application. In some cases you are also taking an action when you provide information or content to us. For example, if you share a video, in addition to storing the actual content you uploaded, we might log the fact that you shared it.” Almost everything you do becomes property of Facebook once it’s posted regardless of whether your settings are on default or have been changed to private.

This is where Xu has a moral and ethical dilemma with the policy settings. Xu is the type of guy to keep his private life and business life separate. He only caved into getting a Facebook because of work initially. However, if it was not required for work and enough friends sent him invites he would have created an account anyway.

“I think Facebook is too loose on the the default settings,” Xu says. “The Facebook Privacy Policy should have the default be private and then the user can change the settings.”

Lee has similar sentiments about the situation. He too does not favor the current set-up for the default settings. He says they are too in-depth and not incredibly user-friendly. Anything that takes more than a few button clicks will lose the interest of many users, even if involves private information. Lee likens it to theft.

“Most people won’t start taking security measures until they’ve been burglarized, or heard of someone else being burglarized,” he says. “The consumer needs to take advantage of the various implications on the social networks. In the end, it really is up to Facebook to take the moral stance on controlling the psychology of users to how much personal information gets defaulted out to the public domain.”

On April 23, the The Conference Board, a non-profit business organization with global membership, held an event on Business Ethics & Compliance. Stephen Noughton, of the Pepsi Refresh Project, which is trying to gain attention of social media users, asked, “Does a potential candidate’s presence on social media [networks] deserve a place in the traditional background check?” This was not resolved at the conference according to Vault.com, a comprehensive Internet resource for companies and job-seekers alike.

Facebook Privacy Settings

Charles Becker, 22, a recent graduate knows what to be leery of when it comes to the job market and Facebook. He has quite a few web sites linked up with his profile page, but they all go to sites that relate to his field of work. He only has a few pictures accessible to the public and his contact e-mail along with some favorite quotes and books. None of which are the least bit distasteful to the average Facebook member.

“It’s regular practice for employers to check Facebook profiles before offering interviews or even a job,” Becker says. “As with anything else, your profile reflects you, your beliefs and your ambitions. It’s foolish to allow uncensored or incriminating entries to tarnish your page, which is your branding in our tech-driven world. I think some people are a little slower to understand the importance of image. They may feel that with enough experience, it shouldn’t matter what you do in your spare time–and it doesn’t. But, the world doesn’t need to know, especially if it involves smoking an illegal substance when you called in sick.”

Branding Yourself on Social Media Sites

Branding yourself, so to speak, has become quite necessary to some. There is even a web site called AllFacebook.com that has an article titled “10 Privacy Settings Every Facebook User Should Know” by Nick O’Neill that is a must-read if you want to keep or get a job according to Brand-Yourself blogger, Pete Kistler.

Batey, who may not be an avid Facebook and Twitter user, suspects she interacts with Google Reader, a feed aggregator, in the way that  lot of people use Facebook. She shares a lot, follows a lot of people and enjoys the engaging conversations that arise from some of the comments made. However, in order to enjoy participating in these conversations more candidly, she keeps her Reader private.

“I’m already on Reader tracking the news and what everyone else is writing about all day, so it’s both useful and nice to have that social networking element to it. But even then, I am aware of my brand and who I am. I’m not going to share an item from a small personal blog and posting ‘What a [insert insult here]!’ even if I was thinking that as I read it. You never know how that might get passed on.”

Batey is pro-honesty and openness online, but believes that everyone, not just media folks, need to think of themselves as brands.

“One of my closet friends is a sex writer,” Batey says. “She tweets or uploads things to Flickr that would keep her application to the convent denied, but getting to the nunnery is not part of her brand.”

In January, Katie Stansberry, an instructor in social media at the University of Oregon posted an article on the ISTE Connects web site about a new approach she took to convey to students the importance of protecting their online reputation.

“When I announced that instead of a typical get-to-know-you activity, I was going to show them what a future employer might find if they were checking them out as part of a hiring decision there were some nervous murmurs,” Stansberry wrote. “However, as we went through the slides and discussed each student’s personal brand there were lots of good-natured laughs and some rueful grins. Several students learned that photos and comments they had thought were private were actually accessible to the public.”

In the comments below her post, one of Stansberry’s students during this exercise wrote, “Katie did introduce an interesting point to me though. Why is my online presence so private? Because I am going into a field that works very closely with social media, I need to be able to show that I am involved with it.”

But again, concern should not be limited to undergraduates or young adults interested or involved in the media rather all should be aware.

“I love Vegas!” reads the status of a young woman.

Meinani Villareal, 25, made a recent trip to Sin City with a couple of friends. One of the friends posted about the trip and her aunt, who is highly religious, ended up seeing it and commented on it. The incident caused a lot tension in the family and her aunt was not amused to say the least.

Villareal is what some may call a Facebook junkie and she is only going on three years of having the account now. She says she uses Facebook “all day, every day” and even has notifications sent to her cell phone when she gets new messages or if someone comments on her profile. She enjoys updating her status frequently and posting pictures of trips like the one that caused some family drama for her friend. But, Villareal has been a bit more cautious with what she posts online since the trip.

“Although I post random pictures that not everyone should see, I do care how people will depict me,” Villareal says. “I don’t want them to create wild interpretations of what kind of person I am.  Even if it is a crazy picture, or inappropriate picture, I am not necessarily a crazy person or an inappropriate person with bad morals.”

Therefore Villareal appreciates the Facebook privacy settings that can somewhat censor what some of the younger people in her network can see.   “I do limit access to certain people like to anyone that probably wouldn’t be caught in a crazy picture or situation with me,” she says.

According to the list complied by Nick O’Neill for the AllFacebook.com article on privacy settings to know “Using Your Friends List” is the first mentioned. Nava Noori, 23, a recent SF State graduate, utilizes this feature because she says her family and friends have different perceptions of her. In order to keep their view of her the same, she feels the needs to limit what each group can see on her profile page.

Though she likes the privacy settings, she doesn’t like how alterations to the privacy policy are not announced in a more obvious way. “There is never any big announcement before Facebook changes the criteria. At least, not in a way that the average user would really notice for a while.”

Cesar Tapia, 23, an undergraduate at SF State thinks that users needs to have a clear understanding not to put any information that may come back to haunt you in five to 10 years. Private information or information that is not beneficiary to the user should not be posted or at least be aware that it is impossible to fully guard anything you post on a social media site in Tapia’s opinion.

“The fact that I haven’t run into any negative problems with these kind of sites are a result of me being careful with what I post,” Tapia says. “I’m always thinking about my parents reaction if they were to see it. I think that social media sites are not to be messed with and people should be careful with them.”

The Need for Facebook and Update Overload

If you have to watch out for what you post so much, some people may wonder why even have an account? What’s the need for Facebook? What makes so many people, 400 million active users according to the Facebook Press Room, intent on spending over 500 billion minutes per month on the site.

Fernando Novoa, 22, another SF State graduate believes that it is curiosity. “Although we hate the news feeds, the reality is that we are all interested in what other people are doing, and to some extent, we want people to be curious about what we do,” Novoa says. “We want to seem interesting to others.”

He says that whatever you post is a reflection of you in the same way your clothes, friends, habits and the activites you join are. “However, couple it with the concept that we live in an age of social media networks and you can start to see the depth to what a minor drunk night might do for your reputation,” he says.

Teenagers and young adults are not the only social media users. In fact, the largest age group of Facebook users is actually 35 and older. Less problems may arise with these users than younger users due to a variety of reasons.

[pullquote author=”Lee Young, former RockYou! employee”]“In the end, it really is up to Facebook to take the moral stance on controlling the psychology of users to how much personal information gets defaulted out to the public domain.”[/pullquote]

Xu says he rarely updates his Facebook page and most of his friends follow suit. “A lot of my friends are older and usually on post updates if they have a child, go on a trip or have pictures of a special event,” he says.

So, what about the younger crowd? A lot of younger people aged 17 and younger are still using sites like MySpace according a study conducted by Royal Pingdom, a blog dedicated web development. Pingdom monitors the performance of such sites.

In June 2009, The Neilsen Company published a report called “How Teens Use Media” and found that “social networks are a key source of information and advice in a critical developmental period: 57 [percent] of teen social networkers said they looked to their online social network for advice, making them [a third] more likely to do this than the typical social networker.”

Bryan Reyna, 16, a Bay Area high school junior, says he uses Facebook to talk to people in the same way he uses his text messaging. But, he also says he does not post anything personal or things that would upset his family. He believes a lot of his peers are either ignorant about the consequences of certain things getting leaked or that they just do not care.

A former classmate that attended a Catholic school in the South Bay posted comments related to smoking marijuana and his parents as well as school administration found out. He was expelled from the school. Reyna says it does not affect the student because he still post similar things on his Facebook page.

Another incident happened with a different student where an inappropriate YouTube video was posted with the student wearing the school jacket. The student was suspended. This is a strikingly similar to what can happen in the workforce. An employer can fire someone based off inappropriate postings on the Internet as long as it is not used to discriminate against the employee.

The amount of use for some teens seems a bit excessive. In December 2009, AOL News reported that “a poll conducted by Common Sense Media found that nearly a quarter of all teens who belong to Facebook check their page more than 10 times each day”.

Reyna who says that he checks his own Facebook account about three to four times daily speculates that people in his age group are attention seekers. “Guys and girls are needy,” Reyna says. “It’s rewarding if they post something revealing and a person compliments them or comments on it. It makes them want to keep doing it.”

Xu says people that update constantly crave attention. They need the world to hear their voice, which is a lot of people. But, he can understand why people post a lot and relates it to being in high school. “Everyone wanted to be special and unique…but your profile is not the confession room,” Xu says.

Cabrera has spent a little over an hour halfway browsing on Facebook and halfway folding laundry. She admits it can be distracting, especially if you’re trying to “get over” someone you dated. She is contemplating deactivating her account for a while like she had done before. Her longest deactivation period is three months. But, she admits that even when she deactivated hers, she would just log into her best friend’s account and see what people were posting.

“Anyway, I really have to clean up my room,” Cabrera says while clicking away at different people’s Facebook pages, her eyes in shock at the screen of what no doubt has an image or blurb about something someone posted.