There is only one Internet. I wanted to make sure I got that out of the way early in this column, because evidence suggests that people don't get this fact.
Forgetting isn't entirely our fault; all the different online places we visit look, well, different. Good branding deludes us into thinking that what happens on YouTube stays on YouTube. Most of us—certainly most of the people reading this—grew up without the sort of interconnected lifestyle that modern technology demands, and cell phones with cameras weren't omnipresent. Most of the time, they weren't even present at all.
This kind of thinking gets us into trouble. I've said many times that I try to keep my online behaviors separated by venue, and one or two friends have criticized my postings in one place for their potential career impact in another. I know nothing is truly compartmentalized in the digital realm, except for the secure, password-protected stuff, and yet I still fall victim to old ways. At least my offenses are small ones.
Others are less fortunate. A few months ago, there was a minor scandal about high school math teacher Carly McKinney, who went by the handle "Crunk Bear." Go ahead and look her up. Her free time seemed to involve lots of drinking, weed smoking, and the taking of seminude photos. Sounds good to me, but the problem was that she posted her antics in a way that made her easily identifiable to her students and employers alike. One firing and a Save Crunk Bear campaign later, she's a minor Internet celebrity enjoying 15 minutes of fame but no paycheck.
There's definitely a free speech issue here, in that McKinney or anybody else has the right to say and publish what they want as long as it does no harm. The school administrators felt that her actions harmed the school's image and credibility, and, of course, violated the usual no-tolerance drug policy schools like to pat themselves on the back for enforcing.
I'm not arguing "pity the poor stoner," exactly. McKinney should have realized that exemplifying the behavior most schools fear from their students would not go over well. More importantly, she should have realized that anything you make public is public for everybody. Her students may have had more respect and affection for her in knowing that she is human, fallible, and capable of understanding fun beyond the confines of a homecoming dance. Some of her colleagues may have felt the same way as well, the illegality of recreational marijuana (in most states) notwithstanding.
The issue we all face is balancing honesty, security, and trustworthiness and still being able to make sense of our lives. Honesty means you portray yourself as the person you really are; security means not giving away so much of yourself that you can be victimized; trustworthiness is maintaining the image (fictitious though it may be) that you aren't a complete lunatic.
Social networking complicates the issue, because we no longer have the same ability to keep our secrets secret. We also have fewer inhibitions, in part because social technology encourages us to share. Employers can't reasonably expect us to stop having social lives when we get jobs, or to radically change who we are in order to keep that paycheck. They can, however, decide we're not worth the risk of employment if they see our films of BASE jumping from office buildings, tipping cows, or telling random children on the street that the police want to eat them.
Often people who do weird things for fun are energetic and creative in their professional lives as well as their private ones. While businesses shouldn't open themselves up to lawsuits, they should consider what they can and can't control, and what they might be losing along with the person with an embarrassing social media presence.
Marshall Lager is the managing principal of CRM advisory firm Third Idea Consulting, and sincerely hopes that everybody's forgotten about the Cheez Whiz incident. Ask about his mischief at email@example.com or www.twitter.com/Lager.