I am pleased to announce that this blog can now be found through the Florida Lawyers Blog Watch, which was started by West Palm Beach attorney Ron Chapman and legal web marketing consultant Steve Matthews. The Florida Lawyers Blog Watch is an aggregation of the RSS feeds from Florida law related blawgs.
I’m picking on MySpace because it is the biggest social network and was involved in both of my cases. Everything I say here is equally applicable to Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, LinkedIn, and anything that you publish online or that is published about you online. You don’t have to be a blogger or into social networking to get mentioned online. I’m using the word “case” in the broad non-legal sense of the word as in stating your case to an employer, a friend, or the public at large.
Even innocent things may harm you. At least one prospective school teacher was allegedly denied her teaching degree due to her online activities. You may be a kind, considerate, thoughtful person, who excels in school, but if all you post are party pictures, then you may be giving the public the false impression that you’re a hard drinking, hard partying, ne’er do well. You need to post pictures and comments about your charity work, study habits, and service as the designated driver. In other words, you need to make sure your public image is an accurate view of the well rounded complex person that you are. All it allegedly took in that one case was a single “drunken pirate” picture. So maybe the best policy is no “drunken” pictures at all. If you’re not complex and well rounded, but want to be employed — fake it!
If you’re in business or politics, you have to be careful not to offend. If you live in “red America” you don’t want to advertise your undying appreciation of all things Obama or Clinton. Likewise, if you live in New York City or San Francisco, you don’t want to advertise that you are president of the George Bush Fan Club. If you’re a small town mayor, you may not want to post pictures of yourself in lingerie posed on the town’s fire truck (no matter how good you look in lingerie.) I have a personal blog and I think twice about anything I put there just like I think twice about every tweet.
Before you post anything online, you might want to ask yourself some questions like:
- Will I still be happy with this in five, ten, or fifteen years?
People mature and change over time. I read an advice column in WIRED magazine recently where an employer expressed doubt over hiring someone several years out of school because of their partying image on Facebook. The wise answer was to cut the kid some slack. If you’d had Facebook in college, could you have passed that test?
- Would I want my mother, father, child, student, Sunday school class, significant other, spouse, co-worker, or employer to see or read this? (This goes for both current and future members of these categories.)
You may not be married yet, you may not have children yet, but you may someday. When you do, would you want them to find what you’ve posted? Will some future boss quietly not hire you because of something he finds out about you online? Remember employers, insurance adjusters, opposing counsel, police, school administrators and others can and will look you up online.
- Am I giving a false impression of myself?
Could I give a more balanced impression of myself if I post pictures of me helping out at the soup kitchen or tutoring kids next to the pictures of my last drunken party?
I had a friend who was involved in local politics long before the Internet. Any time he posed for a picture he made sure his hands were empty and his tie was tightened or off. He believed any time you see a picture of someone holding a drink at a party that you assume that they’re drunk or getting drunk even if they’re drinking club soda or water. His tie was always tight for the same reason. A loose tie makes you look like a lush. I still remember his advice when I pose for a picture. It was good advice then, and it is better advice now. By the way, if you’re undressed, or half dressed and anyone takes out a camera — run! And don’t ever email anyone a digital photo you wouldn’t want the entire world to see. Enough of these kinds of photos have found their way to the web without the subject’s permission that one Congressman thinks there ought to be a law.
If you manage your online image from the beginning, you won’t have to hire someone to clean it up for you later. Google your own name periodically, especially if you are interviewing for a job, are involved in a lawsuit, or have applied for anything that might involve investigating your background. If you find any dirt, don’t despair! You can clean it up. For a few dollars a year, you can register your own name as a domain and set up a webpage about yourself. If you post regularly, this will help keep a positive image of you at the top of the search engines. Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean you’re not being Googled! Seriously, get your online house in order, keep it in order, and social media can be your friend presenting a positive online image for you to prospective clients, employers, mates, and others. Now get out there and Google. Good luck!
MySpace recently played a role in two cases, which is a sign of the growing ubiquity of social networks. The two cases highlight the importance of managing the image you portray via MySpace, Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, or whatever.
In the first case, my client was a landlord evicting a commercial tenant who ran what was supposed to be a restaurant. That is, the tenant’s lease specifically said that the space was being leased to him as a restaurant. It also required the tenant to operate lawfully and in accordance with all local and state rules, regulations, and ordnances. Leases commonly describe the purposes the property is leased for and require the tenant to comply with the law.
The tenant had a MySpace page promoting his business that we were able to use at trial to show he was operating a bar and that he was not complying with local ordinances and state laws. The over all look of the page and the comments on it demonstrated that a bar was being promoted rather than a restaurant. The numerous pictures showed young people partying and dancing on the bar. There were no pictures of the dining area that we contended was not being used. None of the pictures showed any food being served or consumed. Alcohol was evident in every picture, but not food. Florida state law prohibits smoking in restaurants or in any indoor area except bars that serve little or no food. Several pictures showed people smoking inside. Drinking outside and within parking areas is prohibited, but numerous pictures showed people hanging out in front of the bar drinking. They also showed that tables and chairs had been placed outside for this purpose. Local ordinances prohibit anyone from displaying their “anal cleavage” in an establishment that serves alcohol. This is, of course, designed to prohibit strip clubs. Several pictures showed bikini clad girls dancing on the bar and at least one of them was clearly wearing a thong. Guess what her thong allowed her to display? Just to make it better, she held a beer and a lit cigarette in one hand while she danced. The tenant’s own MySpace page made our case for us.
The second case is my last remaining personal injury case. The week after I tried the eviction case in court I spoke with an insurance adjuster who suggested that I take a look at my client’s “interesting” MySpace page. This particular client had a leg injury. Under “Interests”, she had listed “learning to surf.”
It could have been much worse. Fortunately, none of the pictures showed her dancing on her hurt leg, water skiing, snow skiing, or anything else that would allow the other side to contend that her leg wasn’t really hurt. Perhaps because her leg really was hurt? The adjuster particularly liked the comment about “learning to surf.” I pointed out to the adjuster that she was interested in “learning” not in surfing. Obviously, she didn’t surf and saying you’d like to learn could be a good way to meet cute surfer guys.
The adjuster advised me that he and the other adjusters now commonly “Google” every claimant and look for them on MySpace. Young people in particular often have these pages and they also tend to be very indiscreet about their postings. It has hurt the employment chances of many a young person as well.
Next, I’ll discuss some of the ways social networks could be used against you and how you can use them to enhance and improve your image. I won’t be talking specifically about these cases and will be talking generally.
On March 31, 2008, I noticed an entry in my Twitter feed by a blogger who I had recently started following because he had followed me. I now realize that he was following everyone and their brother to build up his blog about making money blogging and I had fallen for it. The link in the entry took me to a blog post claiming that prominent blogger Darren Rowse had filed for bankruptcy because he had never made the six figure income that he claimed from blogging. I suspected an April Fool’s joke except that it was not April Fool’s Day in the U.S. and I knew that this fellow was located in the Midwestern U.S. Darren Rowse is, however, an Australian. So it occurred to me that it might be April 1 in Australia. I still suspected a “joke” but given all the circumstances I wasn’t sure. It is libelous per se to accuse a business person of fraudulently misrepresenting himself and his business and to say that he filed bankruptcy. It is easy to imagine how this could be damaging to someone’s reputation particularly if that person makes his living by claiming to know how to make lots of money.
The false story got picked up by someone who apparently believed it was true and repeated it on Darren’s Wikipedia entry. Darren also got calls and emails from concerned business partners and independent contractors who were worried about getting payment and whether they had been misled. Darren had to spend his time quelling their fears and nipping this “joke” in the bud. That really isn’t funny stuff or just harmless “link bait.”
As a lawyer, I tend to look at everything cynically — an occupational hazard. One of my earliest tasks as a young lawyer was to review the fine print in a large client’s advertising looking for potentially misleading claims. I still enjoy looking for and uncovering the hidden scam in advertisements. Even so, I Googled the “news” to see if I could verify it elsewhere, because I recognized that if it was untrue that it was libelous and, therefore, only a fool would post a false claim like that.
When I couldn’t verify the story from any other source, I concluded that it must be false. I read elsewhere that the blogger who posted this “joke” considered it humorous “link bait” and he figures that it worked because Darren Rowse blogged about it and he thinks linked to him. I guess the joke is on him because Darren didn’t give him the link. For the same reason, I refuse to mention him by name or to link to him here.
The blogger also claimed that he “kept it to himself” except for a few Diggs and such. I know that isn’t true because I found out about the post when he tweeted it for all the world of Twitter to see. Even if he hadn’t twittered it, posting to an Internet blog with an RSS feed isn’t keeping it to yourself.
The blogger who posted this unfunny joke tried to laugh off the negative reaction as bloggers taking themselves too seriously, but there is a very real difference between lighthearted fun and trying to build your own reputation and following at the expense of others and their reputations. If you want to be taken seriously, you need to remember this distinction.
I heard someone else say on a podcast that you ought to have “the right to gossip” on the Internet like you do everywhere else. The fact is that you do not have a right to gossip when the gossip is false. That is what slander suits are made of. This is magnified when the false gossip is put online and shared with the world. The lesson here — Libel is libel no matter where it is published or what your intention.
Copyright Notice: All Rights Reserved Harry Thomas Hackney, P.A. 2008