Illustration by Stuart Bradford

Too Much Information

People often reveal more about themselves when communicating electronically than they do in person. Although the tendency to overshare is usually innocent, it can have consequences both personally and professionally.

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Angry? Hate your boss? Hung over? Lonely? Many of the 1 billion people on Facebook and 500 million active Twitter users are all of these and more. And they don’t think twice about telling the world. Anyone who visits social media sites sees it every day: the constant chatter about everything from what people ate for breakfast to who hooked up last night to how the job’s going. On dating sites, users describe themselves in intimate, sometimes exaggerated detail or post risqué photos as they search for companionship.

We just can’t stop talking about ourselves.

“Facebook is useful for catching up with friends distant in time and space, sharing stories and photos. But it’s a petri dish of narcissism, and people should unplug from it.”

There are a lot of things people will say under the guise of electronic media that they wouldn’t say in person,” says Ben Agger, a professor of sociology and humanities and director of UT Arlington’s Center for Theory. “People may reveal more about themselves when they type instead of talk. Self-revelation becomes routine when you can’t see someone’s eyes. No one blushes or holds back.”

That willingness is the topic of Dr. Agger’s book Oversharing: Presentations of Self in the Internet Age (2012, Routledge). He uses pornography as a metaphor for what’s happening. Matters that used to be private, both sexual and nonsexual, now commonly appear in public. This oversharing, he says, creates a “pornographic public sphere” where everyone tells all, but few connect.

The Internet is a breeding ground of grandiosity as people crow about themselves and express their opinions,” Agger writes. “It also breeds the search for intimacy, even if this is electronic and not face to face.”

FAULTY CONNECTIONS

Agger calls oversharing a product of the search for connection. Unfortunately, electronic connections are often “flimsy and largely unfulfilling” and rarely lead to real relationships, or what he calls community.

Agger is no Internet-hating Luddite. As he sipped coffee at a Starbucks near UT Arlington, he had a smartphone at hand, which he used periodically for texts involving family matters. Send him an email and you’ll probably get a response in a half-hour or less.

But he does call for moderation, especially among young people. He believes public discourse is declining as society, or at least the online segment, is more interested in gossip and day-to-day minutiae than real issues. Even in news coverage, the many online blogger/reporters make it easy to mistake opinion for fact.

It is good that everyone wants to be part of the conversation, but they need to be studious and analytical. And the conversation, as I’m calling it, needs to be about important matters.”

Whether you jeopardize your job by criticizing your boss in the conversation ultimately may be decided by the courts. Meanwhile, plenty of people post photos of themselves in compromising situations or complain about work without a thought to career implications.

News reports are full of cases where people were disciplined or lost their jobs over Facebook.

A teacher in Georgia says she was forced to resign after her bosses saw an expletive on her Facebook page and photos of her holding beer and wine. Employees for an airline were disciplined after they joked on Facebook that their planes were crawling with cockroaches. A New England Patriots cheerleader was fired because she posted photos on Facebook of a boy who passed out and then was covered with graffiti, some of it anti-Semitic, by pranksters.

WHERE’S THE LOVE?

In his book about oversharing in the Internet age, sociology Professor Ben Agger says most social media connections are flimsy and rarely lead to meaningful relationships.



Tales of employer snooping are widespread. The National Labor Relations Board sees so many social media-related cases that it has put out three reports in the past year covering various incidents and addressing workplace policies. Earlier this year, U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel of New York introduced a bill that would prohibit employers from requiring or requesting that employees provide user names and passwords to their social networking sites.

The surge in employment-related situations prompted the UT Arlington Career Center to create a workshop, Managing Your Digital Dirt, to educate students about the pitfalls of a reckless online presence. Career Center staff members conduct the seminar for campus groups. University College features the workshop as part of its Success Series, a suite of programs to aid students at various levels of their academic careers, including those students nearing graduation.

Students need to understand that what happens in the fun of college life may not necessarily stay in what they categorize as college life,” University College Executive Director Dawn Remmers says. “Their cyber-tracks can follow them to the workplace, and employers can make judgments about potential employees based on those fragments floating in cyberspace.”

POST WITH CAUTION

A 2012 CareerBuilder survey found that 37 percent of companies use social networking sites to research job candidates. Managers at a third of those businesses said they’ve discovered information that caused them not to hire a candidate, including inappropriate photos, discriminatory comments, and posts bad-mouthing previous employers.

As vice president of Marshall Career Service, Jim Ashworth ’73 places senior-level accounting and financial professionals with major corporations in North Texas. High-ranking executives aren’t exempt from bonehead mistakes, he says, citing one who posted a graphic handbook (with photos) about sexual positions.

But employers don’t browse online profiles just to dig up dirt. Almost 30 percent of managers in the CareerBuilder survey said they’ve hired candidates because of things they saw on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn. Darren Nelson ’07, ’08, director of recruiting for Dr Pepper Snapple Group, says his company discourages the use of anything other than candidate résumés, interviews, and references in making hiring decisions. But he understands why some corporations Google their top prospects.

ONLINE RESTRAINT

Rebecca Neilson, director of Graduate Business Services and a Goolsby Leadership Academy faculty member, urges students to avoid creating digital dirt that may hurt their chances of being hired.



Hiring the best talent is a daunting task, and there’s a great deal of risk involved,” he says. “Hiring managers in general may want to minimize that risk with as much information as possible, such as forum posts, Facebook pictures, LinkedIn pages, or any other public information that can be obtained through the Internet.”

Agger would like to see more employers adopt the Dr Pepper Snapple policy of avoiding potential and current employees’ social media pages because they’re personal. But he concedes that “prospective employers, if they’re snoopy, will cross the line to look at your off-hours activities.”

What you think is your own business may not be at all, although cases are still working their way through the courts. One lawsuit in federal court in Virginia involves a sheriff firing six public employees in 2009 when he noticed that one of them had clicked “like” on his political opponent’s Facebook page.

When it’s a potential employer, you may never know whether your Internet sharing kept you from being hired. Employers will simply say they chose a more qualified candidate.

“Their cybertracks can follow them to the workplace, and employers can make judgments about potential employees based on those fragments floating in cyberspace.”

That’s a message Rebecca Neilson ’00 drives home to scholars in the University’s Goolsby Leadership Academy, a select cohort of junior and senior business majors. Neilson, who earned a master’s degree in human resource management from UT Arlington, is director of Graduate Business Services in the College of Business and teaches a leadership course as a member of the Goolsby faculty.

We emphasize that how they portray themselves in social media circles can derail their possibilities of getting a job or perhaps keeping a job,” she says. “They need to keep their personal and professional lives separate and understand what is and is not appropriate to let their bosses and co-workers know.”

Agger believes oversharing presents dangers to both individuals and society. In the opposite of his “pornographic public sphere,” he writes that “people wouldn’t simply lay themselves bare as they satisfy their voyeuristic and exhibitionistic tendencies, but they would read, study, and debate deep issues such as world overpopulation, global warming, domestic poverty, and the loss of neighborhood, among other issues.”

He’d like to see parents wait until kids are well into their teens before giving them cellphones and then cut off usage at bedtime. As for adults, he suggests meeting potential partners in person instead of relying on online dating, “which resembles a meat market and discourages real commitment.”

Facebook is useful for catching up with friends distant in time and space, sharing stories and photos. But it’s a petri dish of narcissism, and people should unplug from it,” he says. “Secretly, we all know that it’s boring, but like many addictions, we can’t live without it.”

Twitter gets an even harder slap: “We should resign from Twitter because tweeting our every location, activity, and random thought is pathetic and dumbs down the culture.”

Agger advises to keep some mystery in your life.

We will all be healthier and happier for tuning out and turning off the technologies of oversharing,” he says. “Only then can we begin really to share—to be intimate, to love, and to open ourselves to love.”

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