By Anne Collier
High school students are displaying serious online spin control skills in their college quests. It’s more like “public image management” than the reputation management so often referred to in online-safety discussions. In an interview for ReadWriteWeb.com, a high school teacher in Reno, Nev., called it “admissions jiu jitsu,” referring to his students’ workarounds for college and university admissions offices’ growing scrutiny of students’ social media profiles.
Though this is getting more and more parental and political attention, it isn’t new. I first wrote about the fictionalizing of social network profiles back in mid-2008, picking up on a paper by UK researcher and psychology professor Sonia Livingstone, who noticed that in many cases what’s seen in a profile is more a “placeholder” in a string of interaction between members of a peer network than a self-portrait or act of self-disclosure. The ReadWriteWeb piece (or its source) suggests that profile embellishing is a kind of deception, as in gaming a system in which adults are “digging for dirt” in what students see as their personal lives. Deception could certainly be the aim in some cases, but – as Dr. Livingstone shows – that view comes from the self-portrait perspective (that many adults have), the belief that a social network profile is just self-presentation. It doesn’t factor in other key properties of social media – the very individual, contextual, and dynamic nature of using it (expressed in Livingstone’s placeholder observation) – which point to a whole spectrum of intention and non-intention.
Array of image-management tactics
Beyond embellishment, a number of other image-management tactics have emerged. One is having another profile altogether – the “ideal-self profile.” Others include hiding one’s profile behind an alias or “amping up privacy settings,” as ReadWriteWeb put it. Some students deactivate their accounts for a while – leaving all their data and contacts intact but just unfindable for that period of time (which we’re now seeing can also raise suspicion about what they might be hiding). Social media researcher danah boyd described another, extremely short-term deactivation tactic that wasn’t aimed at college admission at all, but rather control (not just of privacy): A student would deactivate her Facebook account every time she logged off, so that “no one [could] post messages on her wall or send her messages privately or browse her content,” danah wrote in 2010.
Expert views cited by eCampusNews.com don’t discourage such workarounds. “College applicants shouldn’t shut down their various social media accounts.” What they should do is “heavily edit their online comments, photos, and videos.” The article pointed to fresh data on admissions practices, showing that “the percentage of applications that had been negatively affected by social media searches had nearly tripled, from 12% in 2010 to 35% in 2011.”
Have a presence in social media
Note the point about not shutting down social media. ReadWriteWeb heard the same thing from its sources: “Facebook is still popular enough that a college admissions official will raise a red flag if a kid claims he or she isn’t on Facebook.” Not using social media isn’t something to be (or act) proud of, where admissions and scholarships are concerned.
And scholarship providers are checking profiles too. A survey of members of the National Scholarship Providers Association found that one-quarter had “searched Google and social media sites such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and LinkedIn for information about applicants [though usually only on finalists],” one-third “denied a scholarship to a student based on their findings,” and one-quarter of the scholarship providers doing those searches “gave a scholarship based on information gleaned online,” eCampusNews.com reports.
Seeking positive more than negative
The positive part of that was seen by Bridgewater State University psychology professor Elizabeth Englander too, when she looked into admissions offices’ approaches. She found that, “although college admissions officers did say they looked applicants up online, they said they were generally looking for positive things about the kids [emphasis hers], and that that’s what they usually found,” she wrote in an email. “The negative problems that they really reacted to were the more extreme problems – evidence of serious substance abuse, or having joined a hate group, or posting videos of themselves engaging in crimes or violence.”
* A huge percentage of prospective employers use social media to recruit employees. ZDNET reports that “92% of US companies are using social networks and media to find new talent in 2012,” up from 78% five years ago.
* Celebrities fictionalize their profiles too – maybe they’ve taken some cues from their kids. Reporting on it last spring as if it were something new, Bloomberg called it “security by confusion.”
* “Online spin control: Who does it best? Us!”
* “81% of teens use privacy settings: Study”
* “Online reputation management: Getting smarter, Pew says”
* A 2008 post about universities’ own spin on the Web to attract students.
* A 2007 post about public image management online