Even on a slow day, I can have a three-way chat with two women at the same time
-- Brad Paisley, Cooler Online
But what if you work for the government? Particularly if you're a teacher?
A number of teachers in Palm Beach County, Fla. -- some of them 20somethings but at least one of them a 54-year-old -- discovered that their FaceBook pages weren't as private as they'd thought, with the newspaper doing a search on teachers' pages to reveal their interests went beyond Romeo & Juliet and algebra to drinking and sex.
Now comes the real question: So?
Teachers aren't the first instance of this happening; all over the Web, people have lost or not gotten jobs based on what's available about them online. Is it reasonable for employees of any kind to have to curtail legal activities in their private lives to get and keep their jobs? Is it reasonable for something someone posted at a drunken party their sophomore year to keep them from getting a job when they graduated?
And should public employees -- particularly teachers -- be held to a higher standard than ordinary mortals? As far back as Caesar's wife, who had to be "beyond reproach," up to Max Weber, the German sociologist whose 1922 essay Bureaucracy said that working in public service should be considered a "vocation" not so different from the priesthood, people have said they did.
But should they? If a teacher likes to identify herself as a "beer girl" -- as long as it's off-hours -- shouldn't she be able to? Critics say it sets a bad example for students, but one could also argue that she's of age and should have the right to enjoy adult privileges. Other critics -- typically those of the era where "we never saw teachers eat, or scratch, or blow their nose, or, perish the thought, go to the bathroom" -- also say that it's harder for students to maintain respect for teachers who are seen as ordinary people. In the movie Rolling, for example, a female teacher not only gets busted at an Ecstasy party by one of her students, but also gets spotted being kissed by a woman, and spends the rest of the movie stressing about it.
Plus, there's the whole slippery slope aspect. From what other legal activities are public employees going to be expected to recuse themselves in order to keep their jobs in the future?
It may be a generational thing. Not that many years ago, any politician who could claim illegal drug use was a dead candidate, but as the children of the 1960s began entering the area, that rule has been relaxed out of necessity. Will someday "He's been FaceBooked" be the equivalent of "He inhaled"?
But until then, two things have to happen. First, it has to be a lot easier and a lot clearer how to protect pages and remove content on social networking sites. Seven of the 10 teachers contacted by the paper said they thought their pages were private -- though even then, one person with access and a grudge can spoil a career.
(And hey, this is the web development section. Consider the future market for tools to help scrub a person's reputation online.)
Second, social networking sites go to a lot of effort to encourage users to "Tell all your friends!" and make it easy -- too easy -- to send invitations to any of the hundreds or thousands of people in one's address book -- including, potentially, current and past students. The Sentinel article reported that some teachers had been disciplined for linking to web pages with profanity and other unsuitable material.
Meanwhile, in a time where there's a critical need for them, a number of young teachers are losing their jobs in the field, perhaps permanently. The article never talked about, say, whether these teachers were any good at their jobs. Apparently that didn't matter.