Social media checking goes very Big Brother!

Watch What you tweet!

Unusually, this is the second post of the day. I’m writing this post because I picked up on a service being introduced by a company called Social Intelligence.

The original post that alerted me to this was in ERE, and was written by Todd Raphael. Thanks to them for keeping us informed.
The concept of the Social Intelligence service is that they spider social-media channels from twitter, Facebook, blogs, forums, linked In, Flickr, You Tube and other sources, and produce a report on what is being said. The example given is listed in broad terms and includes things like “demonstrating potentially violent behaviour”, “drugs lingo”, “Poor judgement”, etc

The report is a mix of automated interpretation and analysis (that’s one hell of an algorithm.)

I understand how recruiters and hiring managers will take a snoop at on-line profiles and comments and this can’t do anything but influence their decision if things are over the top. I think we have to accept that in a digital world. it stands to reason that if you might get sourced and hired largely on the strength of blog posts or network introductions, then it can conversely influence decisions against you. Automating that, and employing it as a formal part of the hiring process is a whole different ball game.
What I want to know is how deep these spiders dig to reveal identities. What about the blogger that blogs under an assumed identity, or post in forums? Would they continue to do so if they knew it could or would affect future employment based on an automated interpretation of content? This could kill off some of our best alternative voices in the bloggersphere.
The other concerning thing here is that the service is being marketed for not only employment checks, but also for monitoring employees. Companies can set their own areas to monitor, interpret and report. This has frightening implications, and in my view goes too far.
I accept that if I post publicly that my company is S**T and my boss is an A**E, this could go viral among my colleagues and there is probably going to be consequences. People need to apply common sense before posting, and apply the usual rules to content that they would to e-mail or other public communications. That is just comment sense, but what is next, a voice analyzer fitted to my phone that measures what I say on calls, or to my voice box to monitor the words that come out of my mouth?
Now social intelligence have been wise enough to include filters to cut out anything that could be deemed discriminatory. That covers some of the legal argument, but how are the interpretations reached? If I regularly check in on four-square at pubs and bars, will it flag up a potential drink problem? If I comment on political blogs, will i be deemed a political activist? I could go on in this vein.
My fear is that this kind of monitoring will only lead to people becoming afraid to comment or post anything other than the vanilla, and will kill social-media channels for most users. no doubt I will be in for a bad report as a result of this post, but I really see it as a dangerous step too far.
if you are brave enough, please leave a comment about your views.

Links Mentioned In This Post:


Social inteligence

32 comments on “Social media checking goes very Big Brother!

  1. If people are prepared to put information in the public domain, there have always been (and will always be) employers who wish to use that. I agree the use of algorithms and interpretation adds another level of danger to this – and it’s of course a worry that it allows companies to automate and therefore increase the volume of checks. However, if the demand exists, a service will always grow to fulfil that demand.

    To me, this simply re-iterates the position that everything you ever post on the net should be considered public. If you don’t want it seen, don’t post it. And yes, there will be those who talk about correct use of privacy settings – but some of the major sites have already shown they can change settings far more frequently than the average user is prepared or capable of managing, so that one’s a bit of a non-starter!

  2. Social media checking goes very Big Brother!…

    I found your entry interesting do I’ve added a Trackback to it on my weblog :)…

  3. I believe this is the price for transparency, which is what everything is going towards…and James is right, if adults choose to put something in a public domain they should be prepared for the consequences. What is a major concern to me is the millions of tweens/teens who don’t have any sort of reputation management curriculum enforced in schools, or the parents who grasp the potential backlash. I’m very curious to watch the age group where future litigation is surely going to come from. Could possibly even steer the “average user” away from large social networks after a number of years?

  4. Megan,
    I beg to differ, I think this is the opposite of transparency. Anything that encourages people to be anything but themselves is killing transparency. My big concern is what the original posts were that get interpreted as drugs or drink problem related. Human monitoring allows for more of a common sense approach.
    yes it is inevitable, that doesn’t however make it right. automated monitoring and reporting through interpreted media scares me. what would your report say about you or me? We are known to rant from time to time, but it is usually well balanced. read the whole post and you get the point. An algorithm could find us to be argumentative, lacking respect for authority and seeking conflict. Would you employ somone with that report?

    • Sorry if I seemed to suggest it was right. It isn’t, imho. I _should_ be able to define what’s private and what’s public on the net – but that’s never been the case and recent advances show it never will be. Unscrupulous recruiters have always used every technique at their disposal to get an advantage, and providing a commercial “wrap” on this kind of candidate referencing will only encourage more employers to try it. I agree it’s a step too far – but commercial interest says it’ll just continue, inexorably. The lawmakers will try (occasionally) to legislate, but I think you’ll struggle to find many examples of legislators keeping pace with technology change, let alone getting ahead of it.

      The only solution I see is mass education – people either need to understand and use privacy settings to a far greater degree than they have in the past, or (as per Megan’s point) begin stepping back from the kind of broadcast personal lives we’ve been seeing in recent times. I certainly think phrases like “Facebook Friend Cull” are going to become more commonplace as people take more control over who sees what.

      • James,
        Didn’t think for one minute you would think it was right, and I agree that it was inevitable sentiment analysis would be used in this way.
        the lawyers make their money from fear and policy within technology. this will only help. waiting for the human rites issue to come up.

  5. I live in fear of the day when a voice analyzer can interpret my message.
    I live in fear.

  6. Bill I love your point and agree that we are moving beyond the scope of transparency and now are killing our voices.

    There comes a time when it turns into an aggressive act vs a way to get a feel for someone.

    Now, my question is how can we have the same ability to dig into who we work with. This is suppose to be about leveling the playing field and in this moment is appears that corporations are getting a way to have upper hand AGAIN.

    Humans are notorious for jumping to conclusions like you said about check-ins and where. Is it possible our thoughts about Big Brother years ago are going to come from ourselves instead of originating from government as we originally thought. Now that should shake in your boots.

    • I’m guessing this is the same algorithm that the secret services use to identify terrorists from on-line activity. We know how flawed that can be. I accept that if I post I take risk but it is the interpretation element I worry about.

  7. Ouch. The cat’s out of the bag on this one, so complaining about it probably won’t get us too far… that said, there are a few things I hope would be addressed/corrected as time marches on:

    1. Automated algorithms are only as smart as the programmers behind them. Search algorithms are generally eerily accurate, but as failblog.org likes to point out, sometimes, some real whoppers slip through.

    2. I’m even more concerned about human analysis. Bottom line: we suck at this. Even when the consequences of a mistake are dire—and here, I’m thinking of things like launching seven astronauts in a space shuttle with compromised hardware, or, you know, invading a foreign country—we seem unable to keep our biases and personalities out of our review of the facts. Apply that warped sense of “I know what’s right” to online posts? No thank you. Especially considering that irony, satire, and sarcasm would be nearly impossible to identify so far away from their original contexts.

    3. The underlying issue here is fear… fear of a technology that has outpaced both legal definitions and social norms. Even with this technology, we still have more privacy today than our ancestors did in their rural towns; however, we feel our privacy evaporating and can see no countervailing force to temper the technology. Yet.

    So what do I think? I think: (1) The technology is here, like it or not. (2) Avoid anyone who tells you the technology is a silver bullet. (3) You know those black-and-white thinkers who believe people can be reduced to a set of scores on a pre-employment screening test? Or managers who assume all their employees are crooks based on gut feel? Well, thank your lucky stars that they now have a tool that’s at least better than the old ones they were using.

    • Jason,
      I can rely on you to nail it. It’s not the technology we should fear but the people who use it. could be that employees in the future who have “Failed Spectacularly” will look back and muse”perhaps I shouldn’t have posted that!”
      I’m a big believer that technology is the enabler but not the silver bullet. If it could do the human interaction bit for you, none of us would be employed.
      If the “scores” were everything why interview? Why not just hire directly following a full social-media footprint examination and a test? I can’t see it being too long before we get back to interviewing, and good interviewing, based on much more than gut feel.
      Thanks Jason,

  8. Bill, your fears are legitimate. Jason is right that the technology has outpaced the legal definitions. Most of what we have to go on legally for such things is based on court decisions that are nearly 10 years old, or older, and have more to do with wire tapping and credit reporting laws than social media.

    But it was only a matter of time. There have been programs out for a while that decide whether your postings online carry a more negative or positive tone. This is a natural progression. Many employers base hiring on personality assessments, another example of legal and accepted, but sometimes flawed technology.

    Unfortunately, online chatter analyzers like this one will become very common and accepted as well. Perhaps we will all be posting under pseudonyms at some point.

    • Fishdogs,
      I suppose it was only a matter of time before sentiment analysis got turned on the people. Your report would be positive, some of us, quite negative i suspect. If you post “rap” videos, does that make you a gang member? these would be my real questions.

  9. There is not one single person on this planet that has not exercised bad judgment. In fact I probably have in the last 24 hours. So I guess I can start kissing my career good-bye right now.

    If needing to exercise good judgment and having a squeaky clean reputation outside of work is an ability that one must have, then I could see it. But what jobs are those? Politicians? Lawyers? Doctors? Please.

    What ever happened to hiring people based on their knowledge, skills and abilities? How is what people communicate to their friends and network important to the job? Creating a sound job description, asking sound interview questions, using your knowledge and skills to choose an employee goes out the window with this type of mechanism. It’s lazy. It’s presumptuous. And ironically enough, it exercises bad judgment.

    Thanks for sharing this. I decided to take a rant-ish approach to see if it causes my score to drop. If I do lose my job because of this, I’m moving to London and working for you. It’ll be a new company called Bad Judgment Assoc., Un-Ltd.

    • The new company is already in set up Paul. We can market “People you wouldn’t hire based on their social-media footprint!” I suspect success.
      When I was involved in hiring for a growing recruitment business, our best hires, some of whom now own firms or work as Directors, could best be described as rough diamonds.
      Our culture shaped them and made them. if we ran a check, or had social media in those days, we wouldn’t have hired them.

  10. Sadly, this is just another step in giving more power to employers and recruiters and finding more reasons to eliminate otherwise worthy candidates from the running. I worry about it, but honestly, at this point I’ve basically just given up. I try not to post anything too too controversial or inflammatory – but I have slipped in the past, and I’m sure I’ll slip again. I just feel resigned to the fact that this is the way of things, and I have to hope that there are at least some employers out there with enough common sense not to remove me from their pool because of some errant comment on a web site years ago. There’s only so much we can do, and they currently hold all the cards.

    Maybe in time there will be more counter-programs and services developed to aid candidates in obtaining true privacy and scrubbing online blemishes. Anyone who could truly do it would certainly have a waiting market.

    • Bryan,
      Lets not get too concerned. In a recent survey I conducted for my social Job search blog, 90% of the hiring managers said that they couldnt care less about what you post on Facebook. My concern is that once it is automated in this way, and nobody has the mind numbing job of ploughing through your tweets, posts etc in the hope of finding a wayward one, the practice could change.

  11. […] Its not the first time I have commented on this issue, but it was brought to light by a post from Bill Boorman yesterday regarding another new piece of software called Social Intelligence (Oh please!) that […]

  12. This just represents everything that is wrong about our approach to social media and social collaboration in general. It’s no wonder organisations and HR folk in particular are struggling to see the benefits of social media if they think in this way. Very disturbing.

    Paul makes some interesting and very valid points. I actually think that organisations can benefit hugely from the social activity of employees, even if it doesnt at first appear relevant to the job. And i did chuckle when i saw Paul’s reference to Lawyers and Politicians! Haha! Probably the most deviant and crooked bunch of them all and yet someone is going to make a call on my ‘sense of judgement’ based on my tweets and blog posts?! Please!

    Im still waiting for an HR or resourcing person to tell me exactly what they hope to find/get from social media checking/snooping that they cant already find using the plethora of tools already available. Please enlighten me.

    This story so touched a nerve with me i posted on it this morning. ITs here if you fancy a read:


    Great post Bill. Rare for us to agree on something 😉

    • Gareth,
      Im just getting around to getting the comments in order so sorry for the delay. great post in response. My fear is that automation opens this up. In reality, most people would get bored of snooping once they’ve done it for a while. If you post somthing really obvious, like my boss is an A****, it won’t take long to come to the surface. Aside from that, I think monitoring and checking will largely be little more than a quick glance. Take the effort out of it, interpret it for you and we are in a whole new realm. Frightening!

  13. It is scary when we in H.R believe that just because means we can… This whole situation reminds me of when the justice department would pretty much do the same thing with regards to their candidates.. but even they were not immune from the laws.. see Wah, Mommy the justice department won’t play with me… http://bit.ly/dpQ2ex

    The fact of the matter is What does what someone does in their private life have anything to do with the Objective qualifications and ability to get the job done? If an individual likes to have sex with Donkeys or loves to make their own moonshine in his bathtub, is that YOUR business? Those conversations would be taboo in the office at any cost – so how or why would it matter what they do in their private life.

    Shouldn’t all that matter is What they did, when they did it, how they did it, when it comes ONLY to the job.. Their ability.

    The reality is we say we want individuals who would “fit” but I can guarantee you that even amongst us, our peers, people we work with, go to church with, or even in public office, who are sex offenders, there are criminals, there individuals whom you may have invited in your home, but if you knew their backgrounds and what they did in private you wouldn’t even want to stand on the same street far less have them in your home.. But we have.. unbeknown.

    The UGESP – for those in H.R who still don’t know, it is the Uniform Guidelines of the Employment Selection Process Clearly defines The Three Main Standards of a Job Qualification should be – Non-comparative, objective, and Job related standards consistent with business necessity

    So- yes, this IS Boring stuff.. but please tell me, How does what one says online, or what one does in the bedroom have to do with the selection process?

    • essentially you are right in this Karen. the law is quite clear on what can and can’t be considered, where it is not clear is on what can be used to determine this, as a result, it is largely down to choice.
      Clearly this needs more thought for the current age, the law tends to drag behind technology untill somone chooses to challenge it. Then, open floodgates.

  14. I noted this in the comments to my post “HOW TO Avoid the Top 10 Faux Pas Seen in Twitter” profiles. http://j.mp/bfj65h

    There’s also a hearty discussion on this over at ERE.net. http://ow.ly/2LkZk.

    People aren’t too happy about perhaps containing their “real me” on social media, people aren’t too happy about employers making judgments about people based on their social media posts, etc.

    The thing is, some company insiders are going to look at what prospective employees post on social media — whether HR or Legal lets them or not. Job seekers, be savvy! Accept this and accept the career consequences of the choices you make.

    • Donna,
      Thanks for posting. you are right, Apply a bit of common sense on what you post, it could bite you. In the past however, it has been about stupidity and not thinking, now it could be about algorythm. A whole new ball game.

  15. […] @BillBoorman wrote a heckuva post about the line between Google and Big Brother. Where is that line, […]

  16. Just one further thought on this one Bill… one of those late-evening epiphanies… I actually wouldn’t WANT to work for a company that feels it can judge candidates on this basis. Nor would I want to work for a company that feels it has the right to judge me based on what I get up to at the weekend. On that basis, if I’m eliminated from a candidate pool by virtue of this kind of screening, I think I might actually be grateful that I didn’t waste further time interviewing with the employer anyway!

  17. Sounds like Corporate America is moving one step closer to McCarthyism in its handling of prospective and current employees. My personal opinion is if a company feels the need to scour your social media activity before they hire you and then look over your shoulder once they do, it’s most likely not a company for which you want to be employed in the first place.

  18. I enjoyed this post, and especially the comments, many of which reflect my own thinking on these issues. I think it’s important to remember that social background checks, the service that SocialIntelligence provides, are only part of the story. Social media is used as part of the candidate sourcing process as well.

    I’ve recently written a related blog post/white paper entitled “Social Screening: Candidates – and Employers – Beware.” It can be accessed here:

    Blog post – http://www.sminorgs.net/2010/10/social-screening-candidates-and-employers-beware.html

    White paper – http://www.slideshare.net/SMinOrgs/social-screening-candidates-and-employers-beware

    I plan to write a follow-up post and will include a link to this piece in it. It’s a great way to extend my ideas and the discussion.

    Courtney Hunt
    Founder, SMinOrgs Community

  19. As promised in my previous comment, here is a link to my follow-up post entitled “Social Screening: The Expanded Discussion.”


    I look forward to continuing this dialogue.

    Courtney Hunt
    Founder, SMinOrgs Community

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