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If you think your tweets and Facebook posts don't matter, think again

That edgy quote in the college newspaper could show up years later at a job interview. So could a Facebook photo or tweet that seemed fun at the time but not so easy to defend 20 years out. Big Brother is watching.

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    This Nov. 4, 2013 file photo shows the icon for the Twitter app on an iPhone in San Jose, Calif. You may have forgotten about most of your tweets and Facebook posts, but they’re still there.
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Dear members of the class of 2015: The future is watching. That may sound like the pseudo-inspirational piffle that is the staple of commencement addresses. But I mean it as a warning.

Much of what you have written, said, and done over the past four years is available for inspection on the Internet. You may have forgotten about most of your tweets and Facebook posts, but they’re still there. The same goes for your musings in the campus newspaper. In many cases, you may have uploaded research papers, too. 

Suppose that you had a scrape with the law, as college students sometimes do. Yes, that part of your life story is also available. Google the words “arrest records online” and you will get more than 50 million hits describing services that will sell this information to anybody who wants it.

You may well wonder why anybody would care about what you did as an undergraduate. For starters, recruiters and hiring managers routinely go online to check out potential job candidates. Obviously, they do not want to touch anybody with felony arrests, and they are also leery of people who post profanity or boast online about their experiences with alcohol or illegal drugs. Some will take notice of bad grammar, even if it is just in a description of your cat.

And then there is opposition research. Until very recently, only people who ran for office had to worry about opposition researchers digging into their backgrounds for damaging material. But advances in technology have made it cheap and easy to do “oppo” on campaign aides. In recent months, staffers have lost their jobs because of ill-considered online statements. If you think you might ever work in a campaign – be it for a presidential candidate or a local land-use ballot measure – you can expect to be a target.

Perhaps more than corporate recruiters, oppo guys will be looking at your comments on issues. Remember that term paper where you pondered the idea of abolishing Social Security? It could come back to bite you. You may well argue that it was merely an intellectual exercise, or an expression of an opinion that you have since changed, but just think about the headline:  STAFFER TRIES TO ANSWER ANGRY SENIOR CITIZENS.

So, dear graduates, what can you do?  Scan your social media and delete anything that might be hurtful. (There’s an app for that.) You should not go totally off the grid, since some employers will be suspicious of people who are not on social media at all. But take down the photo of the toga party and replace it with one of your First Communion or bat mitzvah. If possible, also take down any papers and articles that you do not want to defend.

If you are just starting college, remember that it is no longer a place where you can make mistakes without consequences. Unfortunately, the consequences will stick to you, so listen to our parents and stay out of trouble. Be courageous in your intellectual explorations, but be prudent in what you share with the world.

The future is watching. Make sure it doesn’t see anything that you don’t want it to see.

Jack Pitney writes his Looking for Trouble blog exclusively for the Monitor.

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