Michael Gartenberg: Warning: What you say on the Internet can and will be used against you

Users need to understand that social media can be land mines on their career paths. And businesses have an interest in helping educate them about that.

Business has had to cope with the challenge of social media for years. In the past, I've discussed how the rewards of using instant messaging and blogging at work are offset by several pitfalls, and I've laid out the challenges that IT and business managers face in dealing with these technologies.

Any business that hasn't addressed those issues with clearly communicated policies by now is behind the times, because today there is much more than just blogging and IM to think about. The rise of social media in the workplace is even more important to confront, because they have made it far easier to blog and interact socially on company time.

Not that productivity is the only concern. Imprudent use of social media can open the door to security threats and even lawsuits over libel. Those are the sorts of things that get companies' attention, so naturally more and more corporations are making efforts to lock down social networking sites on their networks. Good luck with that.

Locking down websites has a long tradition in many enterprises; filters for adult content and games have been around as long as there has been corporate Internet access. But the world has changed, and lockdowns just can't be as effective as they once were. Most users these days are carrying a PC in their pockets. (We call them phones, but that's just a clever euphemism at this point for a device that is ubiquitously connected to the Internet and just happens to make voice calls.) If you make it impossible for users to access Facebook on their corporate PCs, they can just reach into their pocket or purse and fire up their favorite app on their phone. This has ramifications for users, IT folks and business managers.

For users, it means that their opportunities to say inappropriate things online are greatly increased. What they have to understand is that a regrettable post can come back and bite you even if it was posted to a personal Twitter account, Facebook page or LinkedIn profile.

Here's a fun exercise: Search Facebook for the phrase "my stupid boss." You'll be amazed at how many pages come up. Remember: What's on the Internet stays on the Internet -- forever. Thanks to caching, there's almost no such thing as a do-over. And as soon as you hit "share," millions of people all over the world have the potential to see your words and respond to them. Post on Twitter and you speak not just to friends, but potentially to everyone.

Not long ago, a CNN reporter found this out after she expressed respect for a Hamas leader in her Twitter feed. It wasn't long before she needed to find a new job. What you say on social media can jeopardize your job as well -- and could haunt you even more when you try to find a new one.

For IT and business leaders, the ubiquity of social media access means they have to find an alternative to locking down the network. This is a case where the answer isn't yet another technology -- it's education. Banning social media at work simply isn't effective, and it also overlooks the potential for users to say too much about sensitive business issues on their own time, at home and on their own computers. That's why it's important for IT departments to work hand in hand with HR to create sane policies and then effectively communicate them and thus help users understand the importance of their actions and words.

Of course, it's also helpful if people understand that not every single thought that comes into their heads is appropriate for exposure on social media.

Michael Gartenberg is a research director at Gartner. The opinions expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter @Gartenberg.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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