Whatever Social Recruiters Say I Am, That’s What I Am

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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novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Cory Doctorow (2003) portrays a 22nd century society in which money has been replaced by a reputation-based currency of the rather wonderful term, ‘Whuffie’.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. 

Your future boss knows what you did this summer: it’s online

Probably not the most suitable attire for that job interview.

Just over a fortnight ago, LinkedIn announced it is to make its professional network available to UK-based students aged 13 years and older; primarily as a way of enabling young people to leverage the insights and connections of the millions of successful professionals on the site.

Despite criticism that this may prematurely expose young people to “the harsh realities of advanced capitalism” and “pressure them into making decisions based on what others want, rather than what excites them”, the strategy LinkedIn has adopted should be applauded. When it comes to online networks, be they social or professional, it’s never too early to start thinking about your professional image.

YOHLO (You only have to learn once)

If you happen to be one of the thousands of this year’s cohort of freshmen-in-waiting, please indulge me in making your pain-staking wait just that little bit more excruciating.

The first weeks of university may turn out to be the most socially intensive, exhilarating and downright exhausting period of your life. One thing is almost guaranteed: while your Facebook friendships will inevitably rocket in number and your tweets will crackle with excitable hashtagging about mysterious freshers’ fair goodies, corridor parties and enigmatic course mates, the relatively mundane world of career planning and full-time employment will seem a lifetime away.

So, what you may not want to hear is that there has never been a better day than today to start thinking about what last night’s throw-away tweets could say about “professional you” of the future. Seeing as we already find ourselves gathered around the campfire, let me share with you the cautionary tale of young Paris Brown.

Ms Brown, a mere 17 years old, was about to move into the inaugural role of Britain’s Youth Police Crime Commissioner when it was reported that she had posted various tweets that were deemed unbecoming of her newfound civic responsibilities. An important point to be emphasised here is that Ms Brown’s tweets were shared when she was between the ages of 14 and 16 – presumably some time prior to her being appointed to her role – yet her public shaming was as merciless as it will no doubt prove to be permanent.

As Viktor Mayer-Schönberger remarks in his excellent book, Delete:

As much of what we say and do is stored and accessible through digital memory, our words and deeds may be judged not only by our present peers, but also by all our future ones.

If you’re still in any doubt as to the consequences of violating expectations of professionally appropriate behaviour upon social media, try the following test: search for Ms Brown’s current presence on social media. Like others before her, she has become a digitalpersona non grata; conspicuously absent from a world that almost certainly most of her peers still inhabit.

Much ado about nothing?

If it still seems unlikely that you should have any need to consider future employers when sharing your fresher exploits with friends on social media, then you may not be alone. A recent large-scale survey of more than 20,000 international respondents indicated that more than 70% of 16 to 34 year olds in the UK were not concerned about how their current use of social media could harm their future career prospects.

Indeed, as part of my own PhD research on digital reputation management behaviour, I surveyed 257 UK-based college, undergraduate and postgraduate students and found that college and first year undergraduates only infrequently considered the potential career-related implications of their social media use; particularly in comparison to fellow undergraduates entering the final year of their studies. What’s more, only one-fifth of all respondents reported having a LinkedIn profile; a figure suggesting that the core challenge facing the professional networking site may not be coercing young people to grow up too fast, but attracting a younger user base in the first place.

So, an understandable question at this point might be “if hardly any of my peers care about their online professional image, why should I?” The answer to this is deceptively simple: the organisations that you may eventually seek employment with do care. In a JobVite survey of 1,600 recruiting and human resources professionals published just last week, 93% of the sample reported looking at a candidate’s social profile to inform judgments about their suitability. And if you find yourself out of contention for a position, don’t necessarily expect to be informed if it was due to damaging aspects of your digital footprint.

The enduring candidates dinner

Job candidates at assessment dinners are advised to remember that despite the outwardly social context of the event, they are still subject to the scrutiny of their hosts and, likewise, students should think carefully and proactively about what content they are willing to disclose on social media. Such advice is not intended to generate fear and anxiety or to dampen enthusiasm for what is a memorable induction into the privilege of student life, but to simply encourage taking responsibility for one’s present day digital actions in order to avoid “complications” in the future.

While the difficulty of fully deleting content once published means that prevention is almost always preferable to cure when interacting with social media, a number of free reputation management sites already exist in helping you to identify potentially problematic content,review potential threats to privacyensure that positive links show up towards the top of Google searches and of course, share your accomplishments with other professionals. In short, there is no need to enjoy or savour your time as an undergraduate any less than us digital curmudgeons hurtling towards (or beyond) our 30s, who were still fumbling about with how to link Jeff Buckley songs to our MySpace profiles as we handed in our dissertations.

Encouraging the consideration of online professional image doesn’t have to mean trampling on the joys of youth. It can mean supporting young people to make the transition from early adopters of social media to responsible denizens of a digital society that is, paradoxically, both native and yet punishingly unfamiliar all at once.

Originally published by Chris James Carter, 9 September 2013 at The Conversation.


Short piece in The Conversation today

It’s always nice to start a Monday morning off with a bit of good news!

The link below is to a short piece that I was asked to put together for Digital Economy section of The Conversation. I really enjoyed the experience – hopefully there’ll be some more opportunities to contribute again in the future!

Your future boss knows what you did this summer: it’s online


Reputation & Digital Professionalism

Reputation & Digital Professionalism

This is a blog about reputation, digital professionalism and HCI.

As time goes on, hopefully I can both inform and convince you of my belief in the profound need for all members of this digital society to maintain an ongoing state of awareness of how online actions could be judged by professional others.

Ladies and Gentlemen, adjust your dress. Oh, and in the mean time, take a look at the poll below.