Is Bad Taste the New Taste?

Social Media is Changing Our Sense of What's Acceptable—and What's Not

Call Cleveland-based Corkshare LLC Case Western Reserve University's contribution to the social media landscape. Case Western Reserve senior Jim England and alumnus Tim Gasper were among the university's students and alumni who founded the startup in 2008. They believe fruitful discussions are best conducted in the confines of small, ad hoc groups, not the sprawling, massive Facebook-style discussion boards.

smart phone and computer

Organizations and individuals alike are waking up to the reality that postings on Facebook, Twitter and similar social networking services may be shoving their noses in facts and memories they simply don't want to face. On the other hand, social media users have crossed so many privacy lines and smashed so many rules of proper conduct that it may seem that ours has become a society beyond shock.

Would-be centerfolds reveal their deepest, most scandalous secrets to an ever-widening audience of "friends." Macho men wannabes broadcast photos of themselves guzzling enormous quantities of alcohol, and people from all walks of life sound off with intemperate, inflammatory personal attacks on teachers, neighbors, co-workers, family members and more.

Bad taste just may be the new taste as far as the Internet goes. Witness the Facebook group "Beyond Statutory." Set up by students at the all-male St. Paul's College in Australia, the group was widely interpreted as encouraging sexual assault. Or consider the Oregon wide receiver who was booted from the team after posting a racist, expletive-filled attack on the team's coaches.

Think about Twitter king Ashton Kutcher provoking befuddlement by posting a photo of wife Demi Moore's bikini-clad rear end along with the text, "Shhh, don't tell wifey." And what about the group of high school students who posted a YouTube video of themselves dancing on desks, laughing and carrying on while in detention?

The list goes on.

The University of Mississippi's concern about social media postings by athletes is so acute the school recently hired UDiligence— a Vermont firm geared toward protecting student-athletes from damaging social media mentions—to scan the web in search of posts by athletes that involve drugs, alcohol, sex, violence, racial slurs or profanity. Several dozen other universities have contracted with UDiligence—a tip-off that the company is likely finding plenty of dirt.

The mess left behind by such crudeness could leave a permanent mark on our modern sense of what's decent—and what's not.

A Public Résumé

The other side of the picture is that familiarity with social media has bred wisdom and caution. At least that's the take from Bruce Douglas, a Case Western Reserve University business major who boasts more than 1,500 Facebook friends. A couple years ago, as he recalls, impulsive posting of party photos—involving heavy alcohol—was common among Case Western Reserve students, but a new, sober tone has taken hold.

The reason for this new discretion?

"If you want to keep things private, keep them off the Internet," says Douglas, adding the belief is gaining currency among students. For good reason, too. "The first page of Google results under your name now is your public résumé," says Terrence Sweeney, chief marketing officer at ReputationDefender Inc., a Silicon Valley company created to help people clean up their online profiles. It's a tough job, he admits, and it definitely gets harder if the person is sullying his or her own reputation with indiscreet postings and photos.

But it's a necessary undertaking in today's world. Job-hunters beware: "Of course we check out prospective hires online," says Nancy Keene, a director in the Dallas office of recruitment firm Stanton Chase International. "My clients will also check them out, and clients don't like surprises."

Adds Peter Cooke, a sophomore at Case Western Reserve, "More people are aware employers are looking online. That definitely has changed posting behavior."

The Past Resurfaces

But caution has not always prevailed, and it certainly does not triumph everywhere online. Even those who are careful never to post anything compromising about themselves or others are not impenetrable.

"We just do not have much privacy in the digital age-that's a fact we need to understand," says Kevin Poor, a graduate of Case Western Reserve's Weatherhead School of Management and senior vice president at Dix & Eaton, a corporate communications firm based in Cleveland.

Case in vivid point: A highly successful Ohio executive, now in his mid-40s, told his story on the condition of anonymity. It starts with a fraternity party some 25 years ago. The executive—then a student—imbibed too much and passed out. He remembered that much, no more, until he got a Facebook notification that, nearly a quarter century later, a friend had posted a photo of him in a drunken stupor from that fateful night.

"I call on clients. I cannot have them seeing me in that state," he says.

So, what can a person do when an unflattering photo resurfaces? Facebook at least allows users to "untag" themselves, essentially deleting their names from the images. But the photos themselves will remain, and options stop there.

Jacqueline Lipton, a social media researcher at Case Western Reserve's School of Law says this is because the photographer— not the subject—owns the copyright to a photo. That's why services like Facebook do not respond favorably to complaints that are based on the contention that "I'm in that picture, so it's my picture."

The Ohio executive handled it his own way: He groveled. He threw himself on the mercy of the poster who was simply looking to relive happy party memories. The poster meant no harm, and he deleted the photo.

But not all such interludes end on a happy note.

"You have to accept that on the Internet there is no erase button," says Sandra Zoratti, a vice president of global solutions marketing at InfoPrint Solutions Co. and a Weatherhead graduate. All social media permit some deletions, but everything posted persists in one form or another. That Ohio executive's frat party photo could well be on dozens of PCs at this very moment—there's just no knowing.

And privacy settings on social media sites cannot lock out all prying eyes.

Internet privacy is an oxymoron—there is no such thing, say the experts, loud and clear. "There is nothing confidential on the Internet—nothing," says Mano Singham, director of Case Western Reserve's Center for Innovation in Teaching and Education. "People who want to find it will."

That is a crucial message to absorb because, so often, embarrassing posts can start out as small, private jokes meant for an intimate audience. But soon they go viral by way of the web: Soon 50 becomes 50,000, and embarrassment is plentiful.

Releasing Idiocy

So is the technology making us into idiots?

When he hears that, Jim Taylor, a blogger on the psychology of technology who contributes regularly to The Huffington Post, snorts. "Technology cannot make us into idiots. What it does is make it easier for our idiocy to come out."

He adds that when alcohol is thrown into the mix, all bets on propriety are off. "Your inhibitions decline. You post faster." Add in the pervasiveness of digital cameras, and the potential for enormous mischief lies in every hand.

Significant obstacles to posting are not likely to be erected, either, as governmental cures are more likely to be talked about than enacted. Lipton notes that the thrust of existing privacy legislation is solidly rooted in attempting to control government or corporate abuses, with much less attention on peer-to-peer abuses. And usually not much can be done in these cases. Of course there are exceptions: Take New York model Liskula Cohen who sued Google to learn the identity of a blogger on Google's blogger.com who referred to Cohen as "the skankiest in NYC." Google agreed to turn over the name, and it proved to be a rival model. Cohen sued her for $3 million for defamation.

That is one route, but, Taylor says, it's more common to simply shrug off online attacks. "You have to have a thick skin on the Internet," he says. "You cannot take things too personally."

Embracing the Trashy

Where is all this leading? Maybe we are already hip-deep into a pervasive cultural change where what was once taboo and hidden now is embraced—or at least ignored.

"It is very possible to get desensitized to bad behavior," Lipton says. Raymond Ku, a Case Western Reserve expert in law and technology, says big changes are underway. "If everyone has a scurrilous photo in their past, it is harder to say that this is bad. I fully expect the social norms to change," he says.

And pretty much everybody does have a photo-or something- in his or her past that he or she wishes would stay hidden. But in the Internet age, it may well be pushed onto the national stage, leaving behind any hopes for modesty or concealment.

"Today's children are growing up with vastly different perceptions of privacy," and of shame and embarrassment, says Jonathan Hyman an alumnus of the School of Law and a Cleveland lawyer. "We are entering a period where there is little or no concept of privacy anymore."

Maybe we soon will simply yawn in boredom the next time we see a tweet typed in an inebriated rant, or a Facebook photo of a friend—or perhaps even ourselves—dancing on a table with bloodshot eyes.

"A paradigm shift is on the horizon," Lipton warns.