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April 22, 2013 / Mervyn Dinnen

Social Media, Judging Others and The 5 Year Rule

The guy who first managed me in recruitment, the owner of the small agency I had joined, had a way of dealing with some of the slightly more overconfident outpourings of the younger, cockier me. He said…

“Write down what you just said.
Put it away.
Look at it again in 5 years’ time.
You’ll never believe you ever said that.”

It was a put down, deliberately aimed at making me feel immature with a lot to learn about the business world. Probably something I needed at the time, and certainly something that stayed with me. The 5 Year Rule. As individuals we do evolve, we learn, we gain experience and confidence. I had views, perspectives and opinions then that I didn’t have 5 years later. Probably not even 2 years later.

When it comes to social media I do wonder sometimes what to tell the kids. I see them using the platforms to communicate in their own way, in their own language and syntax, with their own friends and peers…trying to make their few followers laugh and trying to be more outrageous than each other.

Of course, at some stage they will be entering the workforce and all these old tweets, updates and snaps will be judged by an older generation who never said inappropriate things, made risqué jokes, swore and got drunk. Well, they did but only their close friends knew. Now they’re able to judge another generation by their own standards.

I expect stories of people in trouble for Twitter and Facebook updates to become so commonplace that we stop feeling the need to talk about them. But until then you will get storms like the hounding and eventual resignation of Paris Brown.

As Andy Hyatt from Hodes Group says in this blog:

“You see, part of being young is making mistakes. Saying and doing dumb things and learning from them.

As adults, we are supposed to understand this. We are supposed to provide the right environment to ensure that young people can grow into socially responsible adults. A positive learning environment. Teach them right from wrong. Ensure that children have access to facilities so they can maintain their physical, as well as intellectual wellbeing.

As adults, we are also supposed to recognise that sometimes, children can be childish: selfish, thoughtless, horrible and stupid. And more importantly, we are supposed to understand that this behaviour is only ‘acceptable’ (and again, I use the word loosely) until someone is deemed an adult. And this definition varies between the ages of 16 and 21 depending on where you are in the world”

I’m sure Paris Brown wasn’t the first and won’t be the last. Right now the next generation of public servants, low skilled service workers, MPs, doctors, journalists and bankers are saying what they damn well like on social media platforms. They’re dating on them, partying and sexting on them, and making people laugh on them.

I see them when I monitor mentions as part of the day job. I see more of the teen users now that I’ve got a search running for comments on the advert that my son is in. Often they have about 100 followers who they constantly try to amuse and/or shock. Sometimes they’ve got thousands of followers, and a level of interaction that some social media gurus can only dream of.

It’s no different whatever your generation. The humour, the insults, the in-speak are always different. The tone and content, the syntax and swear words look very different to an older person trying to judge out of context.

No-one thinks about the 5 year rule while they’re tweeting.

Seriously, if Twitter had been about in the late 1970s what do you think the current PM and his chums may have been tweeting from Bullingdon Club evenings? What pictures may have made Facebook. Or what views may have been socially aired when a group of Eton schoolboys gathered at the gates to jeer unemployed protesters going past on a right to work march? The incident that inspired the song Eton Rifles. I have no knowledge of whether the PM was in this group, but I would hazard a guess that a few of those who may be currently serving high office in both the private and public sector could well have been.

Even now older generations are struggling with the ramifications of a socially connected world. The question of judges and lawyers being friends on Facebook has been raised in the US, even down to the situation where the children of judges are FB friends with children of the victim.

And as we try to make sense of this, with a traditional print and broadcast media facing up to the challenges of the immediacy and questioning ability of social media with a mixture of trying to embrace it and embarrass it, we’re never far from the question of freedom of speech. Do we accept that others’ views will be heard, as distasteful as they may be to us? Is this a grey area that we will struggle to nail down? How do we hold them to account? As this blog summarises the recent attempts to out a particularly unsavoury twitter account:

“That doesn’t mean that freedom of speech means a freedom from the consequences of that speech. Freedom of speech, like all freedoms, comes with responsibilities and consequences – if I say something offensive, then the chances are that people will be offended. It’s not that they have a right not to be offended, but that their being offended means something. It will make them react. That reaction may be real, it may be nasty, but I have to accept that this reaction may happen”

I’ve often felt that a lot of the fuss around what people say on social networking sites, as it relates to the question of recruitment and the workplace, is really about one generation judging another by its own standards. That had the open platforms, with their immediacy, transparency and connectivity, been around years ago then older generations would have made as many mistakes. If we are going to use the fact that we now have these platforms to start judging people by their views, interests, humour and outlook, then we need to find a way to do it that doesn’t disadvantage those who do not know that they are being so judged. After all, does everyone really know EVERYTHING that their children post online?

But this isn’t just an issue for younger people. When you look at cases where employees have lost their jobs through social updates they tend to come from older generations.

For those with a bit of time on their hands, below is a video of a discussion that I led at the recent TruLondon7 around social media and the job hunt, particularly from the angle of how job seekers use it and may get judged by how they use it.

Let me know what you think?

Will cases like Paris Brown become so commonplace that they cease to be an issue?

Will we reach a stage where no-one stands for office, or promotion, because of the possible misinterpretation of things that they said years before?

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8 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. Paul Taylor / Apr 22 2013 8:33 AM

    Wonderful post Mervyn and I love the video discussion. The 5 Year Rule is an apt analogy as I reckon it will take a similar timeframe for us to skill ourselves up to living our lives online , and becoming truly aware of the present and future implications. The real downside of the Paris Brown incident is that set a precedent that resignation (or not being appointed in the first place) is the deserved result of acting irresponsibly. Education and sensible discussion around our online lives is needed in schools, universities and the workplace. There is a real danger of one generation judging another. And that one judging the next -and so on. We need to develop a shared understanding of how we correct the mistakes we have made in this new world.

  2. bromfordhr / Apr 22 2013 11:29 AM

    An excellent question; will social media users adapt and learn to be more guarded, will those who sit in judgement develop greater understanding and tolerance? I suspect a little of each, time will tell.

  3. Damon Lenszner / Apr 22 2013 10:20 PM

    Errrrrr That’s interesting !!!! (Leg shake).

  4. simonheath1 / Apr 23 2013 8:05 AM

    I would show them the film of the Sex Pistols on Bill Grundy and then show them the advert of John Lydon advertising Anchor butter. This is a great post Mervyn. Definitely much to consider for all concerned at all ages.

  5. Paul G / May 14 2013 3:56 AM

    Well, not sure how I ended up here – but a very insightful post articulating what has been on my mind for a while. I am so glad I did not go through the years 15-25 in the digital age. Now, I am trying to give the best guidance to my children (8, 12, 15) about their online behavior. It’s a mind field striking a balance so that you are still providing adequate guidance and protection, but not seen as the ultimate oppressor.

    As a teacher, the digital footprint is something we have touched upon in class too. I have this picture taken in front of a microphone looking out onto a crowd of several hundred. I ask the students how they would feel if they were to be talking on that stage to that many people. All agree that they would plan carefully so as not to make a fool of themselves in front of so many. Social media is their stage – but there is no stage fright, when there should be at least some.

    • Mervyn Dinnen / May 14 2013 7:33 AM

      Thanks for dropping by Paul. I think then stage parallel is a good one, particularly if the audience is full of people who may become work colleagues, bosses, friends and many others who the ‘performer’ may need to interact with and rely on in the future.

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