Ministry of Propaganda

Ministry of Propaganda - 02/Apr/2006: "Whiter Than White"

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Whiter Than White

William Jefferson Clinton famously didn't inhale, David Cameron went a bit further and refused to answer the question during his Tory leadership campaign. Either way, politicians are expected to be whiter than white, at least from a large part of the media and possibly from a large part of the public. In the times of Google, blogs, MySpace and the like this now seems to spread to everyone:

You Are What You Post.

But Googling people is also becoming a way for bosses and headhunters to do continuous and stealthy background checks on employees, no disclosure required. Google is an end run around discrimination laws, inasmuch as employers can find out all manner of information -- some of it for a nominal fee -- that is legally off limits in interviews: your age, your marital status, the value of your house (along with an aerial photograph of it), the average net worth of your neighbors, fraternity pranks, stuff you wrote in college, liens, bankruptcies, political affiliations, and the names and ages of your children.

While I agree that too much transparency can be dangerous (posting your social security number or credit card details is just dumb) I'm wondering where else this is leading. Does everyone need to become a boring worker bee who has never tried any drugs, never criticised anyone, never participated in any fraternity pranks or has dabbled with some obscure cult? After all, it could come back and bite you?

I don't have the answer to where the limits should be, where to draw the line about what to post and what not (let alone that you have only very limited control about what others write about you). But when we have to start thinking about every little thing we do and how it might impact future employment opportunities then I'm getting worried. I'm not too keen on a society where you have to be extremely careful about what you do and how you write about it because it might come back to hurt you. That's the past and (as all investment managers frequently point out) past performance doesn't necessarily indicate, predict or guarantee future performance.

In particular young people need to make experiments, need to make mistakes and learn from them. Otherwise we just end up with a completely risk averse and bland society where everyone is going about their lifes thinking something they do might come back and hurt them. You don't know how something might come back anyway, as David Cameron recognised: He said: "I didn't spend the early years of my life thinking: 'I better not do anything because one day I might be a politician' because I didn't know I was going to be a politician.

In summary: Yes, do think about what you post, but don't live in fear and stop worrying about posting the odd youthful misdemeanour. We need personalities, not bland risk avoiders.

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