Guilt By Association

I’ve been observing an intriguing phenomenon around social networks of late: a “guilt by association” challenge that is interesting to ponder. Here’s a scenario:

Jane Smith is looking for a job. She applies at ACME Widgets Inc. The ACME folks interview Jane and think highly of her. The ACME folks research Jane extensively on online, including on networking sites. They find that Jane is connected to John Jones on some networking sites. Unfortunately, John Jones was fired from ACME six months prior for a wide array of serious issues. Jane’s connectedness with John gets judged by ACME to be a big concern.

Parents teach their kids to be careful about what they post online, but it’s not just the content. Where you hang out, and who with is a factor too. We are judged by our actions and the company we keep, no? What does it mean that I have friended folks on various networking sites whom I’ve never met in person? For all I know, these folks could be the worst of the worst! What are we as users to do? What is ACME to do? What are the networking sites themselves to do?

Clearly, we could all benefit from mechanisms that shed some context on these varied connections. Right now, connectedness on these sites ends up looking a whole lot more like “phone books” than “representations of relationships”.

danah boyd (I’m a fan – you should be too!) touches on this in a few of her writings. In the end, the personas we may utilize with different groups of people, and the context of, for example, Jane and John’s connectedness, are all part of our identity data. That data must live under our control and it must live horizontally online; outside of, but actively-informing, the networking sites. The fact that Jane friended John three years ago because she was fishing for a sales lead shouldn’t cost her a job.

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