Man walks into a column, no.17: Privacy

There was coverage at the weekend of a meeting at the NUT’s annual conference at which teachers were warned about the dangers of pupils and potential employers getting hold of data posted by teachers on social networking sites. It caused me to think about the general factors that determine whether blurring the personal and the professional – through the means of the online – is or is not appropriate in a particular situation.

Like many, I’ve changed my attitude towards keeping my personal and online (public) worlds entirely separate. At first, the barrier between them was a solid concrete wall. Now it’s a flimsier wire fence. The cause of the change is simply, experience, which both breeds confidence and demonstrates that, frankly, very few people read what you blog/tweet about anyway.

But there’s also, I’ve realised, something about remembering that normal human relationships can exist in the professional world too. In most lines of work – certainly in mine – you wouldn’t think twice about sharing modestly personal details, of holidays or family or the weekend, with a client. It’s about knowing where to draw the line: no-one wants to hear about your verruca, but it’s also stupid to act as if you flick an ‘off’ switch at six o’clock. And this principle extends to social networking: it’s a case, if you will, of bearing in mind what’s a verruca and what isn’t.

The crucial difference between me and a teacher is that the people I work with are adults who I can trust to behave maturely. If they don’t, which is thankfully a rare occurrence, there are established means of recourse to stop things escalating before serious damage is done. Part of this trust means expecting colleagues and clients to maintain a separation in their minds between what they know about me personally and what they expect of me in the workplace or, as Paul Carr once (slightly less delicately) put it:

People know what to expect and they either hire me or they don’t based on that. If the writing stays decent and I hit deadlines, all is well; if not, I’m fucked. Apart from that, my time is my own.

For teachers, on the other hand, an ill-judged tweet which falls into the hands of a child has the potential to wreck professional status and capacity to do the job almost straightaway. We can’t realistically expect kids to exercise the same level of maturity and judgement. But this surely doesn’t mean that teachers shouldn’t be publicly online at all, just that the ‘verruca threshold’ (sorry) is considerably lower. The teacher who posted ‘OMG must stop pissing about and get my maths boosters planned as I go to teach kids it in about one and a half hours!!!’ is demonstrably an idiot: we can safely assume the web was merely the messenger of this idiocy rather than its cause.

So much for pupils: what about the second warning at the NUT conference, that online information is being misused by employers during recruitment processes? This, for me, is a red herring. When seeking to recruit, an employer has two important responsibilities: to apply set criteria consistently between candidates, and to be open about the evidence used to come to a judgement. Recruiters should certainly not be assembling online profiles of candidates on a whim, but if this is done properly and openly, with a right to reply, then why shouldn’t this valuable additional source of information be used?

Where it all gets more complicated is when pictures are involved (if this feels like I’m waging a one-man-war against Facebook then, well, I guess I am). All of the above assumes that the individual in question is producing and sharing the content, and therefore responsible for deciding what is and isn’t ‘too personal’ to share with a colleague, student or potential employer. But unless you’re willing to set injunctions against your friends on a night out, anyone can take photos of you and post them online. Profoundly terrifying.

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