Recently, a real estate agent who I once wrote about added me to a group on Facebook without asking my permission first. The group was for supporters of a political candidate who I know nothing about, including whether her views are even aligned with mine. Yet I woke up one day and found myself in a position of publicly "supporting" her.
Now for the record, one of the basic tenets of journalism is that those of us who write professionally about the news do so in an unbiased way. The most obvious manifestation of this is that journalists don't support political candidates. Yes we vote, but no, we don't join their Facebook groups, send them money or volunteer on our days off to write their press releases or canvas neighborhoods on their behalf. At least I don't. I don't so much as sign a local petition urging my town to build more sports fields for kids because one day, I always think, I may want to write about it and I don't want anyone to think I'm being anything less than fair and objective. My town really does need more sports fields for kids, by the way.
I threw that in to make another point: I am a columnist, so generally what I write has "voice." Voice is a backhand way of saying I do sneak in opinion, although it's served up more subtly. For example, when I once wrote that Dido's soon-to-be-released new album would be "coming soon to an elevator near you," you could probably figure out what I think of her music. (You'd be wrong, by the way. My aversion to Dido's music comes from having it playing in the background during a helicopter ride we took on our honeymoon in Maui where I got sick because of an epic Dramamine failure. I've had a "Clockwork Orange" reaction to hearing her voice ever since.)
But back to Facebook, which increasingly reminds me of what happened when my Dramamine epically failed. Apparently people can add you to a group without first asking your permission to do so -- which makes this column the most valuable thing you are likely to see online today, cat videos not withstanding. Let me give you some examples:
Example #1: Let's say you are a candidate for a job with a company that has what are euphemistically called "family values." Let's also say that you are still out of work despite the Great Recession officially ending in 2009 and your own family values largely consist of trying to keep a roof over your family's head and feed the children with some regularity. A job working for the Family Values company would be, well, pretty much doggone wonderful if you could get it. But alas, as you near the final stage of interviews, the Family Values company checks your digital profile and finds some stuff that gives them pause -- stuff like your support of a candidate who you never heard of but whose ideas of reshaping America are pretty far out there in a non-Family Values kind of way. Suddenly, abruptly, communication with the company ceases and you can't figure out where you made a wrong turn.
Think that company recruiters don't check your digital footprint? Wrong, you are. Forbes, reporting on an ExecuNet study, says that rejections of senior-level job candidates because of "Digital Dirt" rose 92 percent since 2005. Up to 70 percent of employers who use LinkedIn say they didn't offer someone a job based on what they found out about them online.
Now if I want to like groups that rescue shelter pets or feed hungry children, I don't see a lot of harm in letting the world know about it. But shouldn't that be my choice, not someone else's?
Example #2: Let's say you are a high schooler applying to colleges, or a parent of someone who is. Good grades, great record of community service -- all terrific stuff. But wait! What's this? You support a group that thinks it's fine for dirty old men to mess around with 10-year-old boys? Right, you didn't actually join that group; someone else did it for you as a joke. When your first choice college denies your application, are you still laughing?
Facebook has this to say if you find yourself in a group you didn't put yourself in: Tough noogies. Or if you want the exact language, here it is:
"Similar to being tagged in a photo, you can only be added to a group by one of your friends. When a friend adds you to a group, you will get a notification right away. You can leave a group anytime."
So basically, your friends can do you in -- whether it be unintentional, intentional, a joke or sincere desire to broaden your horizons. And there is nothing you can do pro-actively, like change settings so only you can control this. Your recourse, as per Facebook, is to monitor your account every 10 minutes so you don't miss being added to the group for people who throw up when they hear a Dido song -- or when they realize that Facebook got them again.