A World of Whuffie
The following post is taken from a position paper that I submitted to the Policy, Privacy and Digital Presence ESRC Seminar hosted by the University of Glasgow, November 6-7, 2013. The short paper provides an overview of my PhD research to date and is shared below for anyone interested. Unless cited otherwise, all research referred to in the studies has been conducted by myself, Claire O’Malley and Lee Martin at the University of Nottingham.
In his science fiction novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Cory Doctorow (2003) portrays a 22nd century society in which money has been replaced by a reputation-based currency of the rather wonderful term, ‘Whuffie’. The nature of social interaction within Doctorow’s fictional world is characterised by human deference to a technology that provides instantaneous assessment of the public esteem with which an interactional partner is held; a dynamic rating informed by the individual’s cumulative actions and that in turn influences the social and professional opportunities subsequently afforded to them. In the following position paper, I wish to argue that the underlying concept of Whuffie already pervades the digital society as we know it. I will draw upon my PhD research to date to support the contention that as personal and professional boundaries continue to erode and data upon social network sites (SNS) becomes increasingly expropriated for professional means, a fundamental concern for denizens of the digital society is in successfully regulating digital behaviour to avoid damaging employment prospects – for which digital reputation appears to act as an important proxy.
Towards the Study of Digital Professional Reputation Management
Though intuitively familiar, the concept of ‘reputation’ as a social representation of the self is deceptively complex in its demarcation from the related concepts of identity and image (Bromley, 2000). On the one hand, the individual ‘owns’ his or her reputation and as such, can exercise control over it via the performative processes of self-presentation and impression management. However, reputation is also characterised as a ‘meta-belief’; a shared set of judgments within a defined community existing as a “collective phenomenon… not an impression in the head of any one individual” (Emler, 1990, p. 171). Thus, reputation can be simultaneously both within and outside a person’s control; be more or less representative of the individual’s self-concept; and be propagated through second-hand behavioural information (e.g. gossip) as well as directly observed behaviours. Indeed, regardless of its veracity, a core social function of reputation appears to be in providing others with a way in which to judge the behavioural consistency of a person; highlighting the importance of temporal continuity and audience interconnectedness (Bromley, 1993; Craik, 2008; Emler, 1990).
Such a conceptual overview hopefully illustrates why employers may have taken such a keen interest in the social media activity of current and potential employees. Recent survey figures suggest that over two-thirds of employers monitor the use of social media on company-owned devices by their workers (SHRM, 2012) and one comprehensive database of organisational social media guidelines currently totals 247 individual policies carefully outlining ‘appropriate’ employee use of the technology. Furthermore, as many as 90 percent of HR professionals and recruiters (Jobvite, 2013; Reppler, 2011) report engaging in ‘social recruitment’; referring to the social media profiles of applicants to inform recruitment decisions. From an organisational perspective, such practices can be rationalised as a form due diligence, with social media providing employers with unprecedented opportunity to cheaply and relatively easily assess ‘risk’ that a current or potential employee may pose to the corporate brand. Yet, the legality, morality and validity of social recruiting is contentious, at best. The point remains, however: carefully projecting a positive professional reputation via social media has become increasingly important feature of self-presentation in the digital society. People do appear to differ in their knowledge and practice of this endeavour though, as the PhD studies outlined in the following sections have sought to explore and understand.
Study One: Digital Professional Reputation Management of Higher Education Employees through Social Media
The first study of my PhD research used a semi-structured interview method to explore how academic and professional services employees within a Higher Education Institution (HEI) used social media to support the professional activity underpinning their job roles. A thematic analysis of fourteen transcripts revealed that professional reputation was a core concern for all interviewees in their use of social media, and was achieved in two principal ways: through the regulation of social visibility (i.e. control over who can see what is said or done, or ‘privacy behaviours’) and through the regulation of content (i.e. control over what it is that is said or done, or ‘self-presentational behaviours’). Perceptions of the permanent and potentially newsworthy nature of social media content appeared to influence an emphasis on the importance of a proactive approach to assessing the visibility and suitability of content prior to publication, rather than adapting content once it had already been posted and seen by others.
The findings indicated that such a prevention-focused regulatory strategy appeared to be particularly prevalent for employees with more established public profiles that tied in to their professional work, suggesting a link between reputation and risk perception. Curiously, numerous interviewees reported exercising caution even within the confines of their carefully selected, primarily personal and trusted social networks; suggesting that for some, privacy settings were perceived as a necessary, but perhaps not sufficient strategy of successful professional reputation management. Findings also hinted towards a possible role for individual differences in impulsivity, self-monitoring, conscientiousness and neuroticism in determining reputation management behaviours, with numerous interviewees linking their careful approach to using social media with behavioural tendencies towards cautiousness and neuroticism.
Study Two: Predicting Concern for Professional Reputation amongst Students
The second study of my PhD used an online survey method to explore the extent to which full-time college, undergraduate and postgraduate students typically consider career-related consequences, regulate online self-expression, prevent potential threats to reputation and promote their work-related achievements when using Facebook and Twitter use. To measure this, an 18-item scale was constructed, demonstrating good levels of internal consistency. In line with a recent finding that only a quarter of UK-based 16 to 34 year olds are concerned that their use of social media could harm their future career prospects (OnDevice, 2013), the 257 students surveyed in this second study reported thinking relatively infrequently about the professional consequences of their posts, with a third reporting never or rarely considering the implications when posting. Similarly, almost half of the students reported never or rarely posting content with the intention of promoting their professional reputation, whereas a similar proportion often or always reported finding it easy to avoid swearing, venting frustrations or avoiding posting without thinking first.
These findings seemed to suggest that it is perhaps not that students don’t think about the consequences of posting content in general, but more that they just don’t post with respect to a professional audience. Further analysis of the data revealed that lower scores of impulsivity and higher scores of conscientiousness were, as predicted, correlated with more frequent consideration of professional consequences, though multiple regression analysis with all personality measures entered as predictor variables indicated that the overall model was not significant. Perhaps of greatest note, an analysis of covariance conducted with a sub-sample of just the college and undergraduate students (n = 167) revealed that undergraduates entering the final year of their studies reported more frequent consideration of professional consequences when using social media than either college students or undergraduates within their first year of study.
Study Three (and Beyond): Psychological Distance and Reputation Management
The findings of the second study raise a number of intriguing questions about what factors might be influencing the relative infrequency with which students seem to consider the professional consequences of their actions on social media. Could it be that students simply don’t believe their posts to be risky to a professional audience? Or could it be that they perceive recruiters to be unable to gain access to their profile? Or perhaps the potential of a professional audience judging social media content is just a distant, rather than immediate, concern? The third study of my PhD will once again use an online survey method and will draw upon the theoretical framework of the construal level theory of psychological distance (Trope & Liberman, 2010) to explore why job-seeking students within their final year of study may vary in the extent to which they are concerned about and perceive the riskiness of Facebook content in relation to their job prospects. It is intended that through understanding the various forms of psychological distance in the context of digital reputation management, it may be possible to eventually inform the design of interventions that help younger users of social media to consider the risks of their online behaviour far in advance of potential professional judgment by social recruiters or future employers. To paraphrase one our most famous bards: the digital reputation we are tasked with managing may at times represent ‘a most false imposition’, but yet it is anything but ‘idle’ or empty. To treat it as such is to neglect the substantial, career-defining potentiality that our digital identities hold for us.
Bromley, D. B. (1993). Reputation, image and impression management: John Wiley & Sons.
Bromley, D. B. (2000). Psychological aspects of corporate identity, image and reputation. Corporate Reputation Review, 3(3), 240-252.
Craik, K. H. (2008). Reputation: A Network Interpretation: ‘Oxford University Press’.
Doctorow, C. (2003). Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom: Tom Doherty Associates.
Emler, N. (1990). A social psychology of reputation. European review of social psychology, 1(1), 171-193.
Jobvite. (2013). Social Recruiting Survey Results 2013. Retrieved from web.jobvite.com/rs/jobvite/images/Jobvite_SocialRecruiting2013.pdf
OnDevice. (2013). Facebook costing 16-34s jobs in tough economic climate. Retrieved from http://ondeviceresearch.com/blog/facebook-costing-16-34s-jobs-in-tough-economic-climate
Reppler. (2011). Managing Your Online Image Across Social Networks. Retrieved from http://blog.reppler.com/2011/09/27/managing-your-online-image-across-social-networks/
Trope, Y., & Liberman, N. (2010). Construal-level theory of psychological distance. Psychological review, 117(2), 440.