In a Q&A on Tuesday at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Virginia, President Obama cautioned a group of 9th graders to be careful of what they post online. He was too cautious by half.

The question was from a student who wanted to be president some day and asked for advice on career paths. According to the White House transcript, he said, in the first of what he called “practical tips” for ambitious young people:

I want everybody here to be careful about what you post on Facebook — because in the YouTube age, whatever you do, it will be pulled up again later somewhere in your life. And when you’re young, you make mistakes and you do some stupid stuff. And I’ve been hearing a lot about young people who — you know, they’re posting stuff on Facebook, and then suddenly they go apply for a job and somebody has done a search and — so that’s some practical political advice for you right there.

The president may have been right about this in today’s world. I hope he’s wrong in tomorrow’s. Let’s unpack what he said to see why.

It’s absolutely true that young people make mistakes and do stupid things. Anyone who doesn’t commit youthful stupidities is either inhuman or stunningly boring and inconsequential. Who wants someone like that to be in charge of anything as an adult? Not me.

But it doesn’t follow, as the president suggested, that posting weird (to older people) things on the Web — in blogs, social networks and the like — should be an automatic turnoff or disqualification for a responsible job later on. The notion of punishing someone decades later for what he or she said or did as a teenager or college student just feels wrong to me.

A journalism student where I teach recently asked if it was advisable to have a personal blog or, if so, to be outspoken on it. He’d apparently been warned that it could put a crimp in his future journalism career plans.

I can’t say how others would react. I do know that if I were hiring someone today I’d want to know what (not if) he or she posted online, not to find disqualifying factors but to see if this is an interesting person. I’d take for granted that I might find some things that were risque or inappropriate for my current world. I’d expect to find things that would be “unjournalistic” in some ways, such as outspoken or foolish (or both) views on important people and issues. But I’d also remember my own ability, if not tendency, to be an idiot when I was that age. And I’d discount appropriately.

This is all about giving people what my friend Esther Dyson has called a “statute of limitations on stupidity.” If we don’t all start cutting each other more slack in this increasingly transparent (often by our own choice) society, we’ll only allow drones into positions of authority. Now that’s really scary.

We’re making progress, probably more than Obama gives us credit for. Recall that it was impossible for a Catholic to be president, until John F. Kennedy was elected. It was impossible for a divorced person to be elected until Ronald Reagan won. It was impossible for a former pot smoker to be president until Bill Clinton (who bizarrely claimed not to have inhaled) got elected. And so on.

How we make these judgements is neither clear nor simple. Robert McDonnell, a candidate for governor in Virginia, is taking hits for a 20-year-old master’s thesis in which he denounced programs that encouraged women to work outside the home and said working women were bad for families. He wants voters to ignore all this and concentrate on what he says are his positions now.

McDonnell deserves some slack, too, but he wrote the thesis when he was in his mid-30s, not his early 20s or younger. His record as a legislator since then has been extremely conservative, as well. What he said two decades ago is obviously more relevant, given the circumstances, than what a student posts on a high-school Facebook page today.

In the foreseeable future, we’ll elect a president who had blog or Facebook wall or MySpace page when she was a teenager and college student. By the standards of today she’ll be utterly disqualified for any serious political job. But because we’ll have grown as a society, not just more tolerant of flaws but understanding that we all have feet of clay in some respect, we’ll elect her anyway, because we’ll realize that the person she became — and how that happened — is what counts.


7 Responses to “Wrong Lesson: Obama Warns Kids on Social Media”
  1. Kim Z says:

    This may hold true for a lot of jobs, but the presidency and other national security jobs will be slower to follow. Currently, to grant security clearance the investigating agency looks back at 10 (or more) years of a persons life. They interview people who knew the candidate. They ask detailed questions about the candidate’s activities.

    Many argue that past behaviors don’t necessary reflect current activities (particularly when comparing college activities to “real” life); however, the idea behind the process is to try to determine the stability and trustworthiness of a person. This is highly subjective, so it is important to give the best impression to the investigator. (Not lie, but give the best honest depiction possible.)

    Things on Facebook and blogs and Twitter and whereever are further evidence of one’s life that may even have a bigger impact than just the forms and interviews for at least 3 reasons:
    1) “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Saying you smoked pot in college may not have as lasting an impact as pictures of bong hits or even just of looking very stoned. In a highly competitive marketplace these are images that you want burned into an investigators mind.
    2) The information may not be balanced. Even the SF-86 form includes infomation for you achievements and other positive or at least neutral pieces of information. However, if you have a rant-oriented blog or a friend with a habit of only taking pictures when you are looking stupid, this again is creating a negative image that may be hard to overcome.
    3) You may answer questions that were not asked. Much like witnesses on the stand are told to only answer what is asked, you don’t want to reveal potentially questionable acts/thoughts if you don’t have to. Even if you don’t do those things or feel that way any more the information will raise questions.

    Even if nothing on the web actually violates a hiring rule, even for getting security clearance, those details may be enough to get another candidate chosen instead of you. That is why people should be concerned.

    Granted, government hiring standards have been changing with the times. At one point, any drug use would have been a red flag, but that was hard to enforce after having presidents who were known to have used drugs. As a result, those with drug histories now need to chronicle their past habits and then sign a statement saying they won’t do it again. Still, it seems better to be safe than sorry. It is very difficult (some would say impossible) to adequately remove things from the Internet. Is the “lol” you’ll get from posting something outrageous worth the potential negative effect sometime in the future?

    Sorry for the ramble, but as a data privacy advocate, this is something I lecture people about all the time.

  2. I shouldn’t do this, but …

    1) Note the pattern – This-SHOULD-be-the-way-things-work. But it isn’t the way things are, so what then?
    2) When social-media gurus write posts like this, they take no risk of their own. If someone gets hurt by following the guru’s advice, the guru has no downside. They don’t ever need to write a post to their audience “So-and-so took my advice, and it harmed their life, my advice was very wrong”. Instead, they can write how either the advice wasn’t really wrong, it was actually so-and-so’s own fault,  or just ignore the counter-example entirely.
    3) You might take into account that one of the moments of the recent presidential campaign that the same sort evangelists are extremely proud of, is arguably violating rules allowing politicians to speak a bit less guardedly, and feeding Obama’s offhand remark about bitterness and guns and religion to the right-wing noise machine. That was called “citizen journalism”. So he’s very familiar with negatives of the “gotcha” game.

  3. Greg N. says:

    Excellent article Dan. I could do well to heed your advice.

  4. MN says:

    A President should indeed be careful about voicing concerns re: specific privacy policies of Facebook or Google etc. This would not be the President’s job. (Besides the ACLU and other civil society organisations have been doing a great job with their campaign to create at least *some* awareness among users). But I think in this case B.O. voiced a discrete warning and cllaed students to think twice (Shouldn’t we all think twice?!). The internet btw and social media and the rest *are not* sacred. But privacy and civil liberties *are*.

  5. Jonah Bloom says:

    When I am considering hiring a journalist, I definitely expect that they’ll have created interesting content somewhere out there on the web. In that respect, I think your advice is spot on. And I so hope that you’re right, that people will see youthful indiscretions for what they are and outspokenness as a sign that someone’s not scared to take a stand.
    <p>
    But I’m not sure you’re being realistic: Your digital record is going to conspire against you with certain potential employers, especially given the incredibly fierce competition for jobs today. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get out there and say what you’ve got to say anyway–maybe you wouldn’t want an employer who doesn’t like your views/creativity anyway–but it’s certainly worth thinking carefully about, which is all Obama really said.
    <p>
    Of course we want a world full of color, a world full of people not only free to speak but empowered to have their say by technology. Yet I’m not sure that it’s so bad that they also learn to edit, to filter, to consider what different types of people or audiences will think of their content. I’m not sure that’s being a drone, so much as being aware that actions have consequences and you’re not the only person in the world that matters.
    No?

    • Dan Gillmor says:

      Jonah, my hope, over time, is that the kinds of employers who’d be scared off this way would be the kinds no one would want to work for in any case. We don’t disagree in any way about helping young people learn about editing, filtering and the like — in fact, those are critically important skills. My main point is the idiocy — and counter-productive outcome — of rating people based on long-ago stupidities.

  6. Dan, regarding “would be the kinds no one would want to work for in any case.”, that’s a very common way of dismissively trivializing the problem facing a job-seeker. May I remind you that we are currently in the midst of one of the harshest global recessions? Sometimes people have to work for jerk employers, in order to put food on the table and pay rent and get health insurance. Moreover, human resources departments are notorious for doing stupid things to evaluate candidates. While it is abstractly accurate to say they shouldn’t, they shouldn’t, they shouldn’t, the reality of the matter is THEY DO! Obama was absolutely correct when taken against the marketing of exhibitionism for the profit of the marketers and the potential grief of the exploited.

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