Like criminal background checks and drug tests, the social media check is quickly becoming an automatic part of the hiring process. Employers regularly run quick Google searches to vet applicants, but since September, California-based Social Intelligence has been contracting with corporations across the country to institute standard social media background checks — with the blessings of the federal government.
The company patrols the Web for telltale signs that you might be a questionable hire. Flagrant display of weapons. Sexually explicit photos. Racist remarks. References to drug use.
"The company wants to protect their existing employees from negligent hires. It's the same reasons why you do a criminal check," chief executive Max Drucker said in a phone interview.
Social media sites crop up and explode in popularity and fade within a few years. (Remember FriendFeed? Or MySpace? And are you among the 10 million people who joined Google Plus in its first week?)
All of which means we may not realize the trail we leave on the Web. "We're all creating an archive of our own lives, whether we're aware of it or not," artist Hasan Elahi said recently at a TED Global talk. After being accused of terrorism by the FBI, Elahi recorded every step of his life online for his project "Tracking Transcience: The Orwell Project."
Social Intelligence scans the archive you create for misdeeds, offering companies 30 parameters to choose from in the search. It's a process that, when first announced, elicited comparisons to Big Brother.
However, the procedure may not be as invasive or frightening as one may think.
Mat Honan, a writer for the tech blog Gizmodo, underwent a scan along with five of his colleagues. Honan was the only one who failed. An old blog post had him raving about how much fun cocaine was. In another, his friend gives him some ketamine.
In the name of journalism, Honan posted the results online. "What it doesn't include in the report is nearly as interesting as what it does," he wrote. The scan turned up examples of his drug use, but it removed anything that could be considered discriminatory or irrelevant in a job search, including skin color and beer consumption.
Honan said that the key here is that the site does reveal bad tracks you've left online, but ultimately it can only find what you've left behind. If a potential employer flags your social media history, you have no one to blame but yourself.
Drucker agrees. A job candidate should spend as much time polishing an online profile as choosing an interview suit.
"Create an online persona that is far richer than a resume might be," Drucker said. "Create your own personal domain. Participate in various industry blogs. Put yourself out there in a way you'd like your employer to see."