Harvard Business Review
Citation: boyd, danah. 2007. "We Googled You: Should Fred hire Mimi despite her online history?" Case Commentary, Harvard Business Review, June.
This is my response to Diane Coutu's case student. To read the complete case study with other respondents' commentary, you will need to order the June 2007 issue from Harvard Business Review. Because this case is the first Interactive Case Study, the case is now online without the responses.
Background: What follows is my response to Diane Coutu's "We Googled You" case study where Fred is trying to decide whether or not to hire Mimi after one of Fred's co-workers googles Mimi and finds newspaper clippings about Mimi protesting Chinese policies. Given the case study, we were then asked, "should Fred hire Mimi despite her online history?" To fully understand my response requires reading the original case (which I'd encourage) but I still felt that it was important to make my response available even if the complete context is missing.
I just celebrated my ten-year blogging anniversary. I started blogging when I was 19, and before that, I regularly posted to public mailing lists, message boards, and Usenet. I grew up with this technology, and I'm part of the generation that should be embarrassed by what we posted. But I'm not—those posts are part of my past, part of who I am. I look back at the 15-year-old me, and I think, "My, you were foolish." Many of today's teens will also look back at the immaturity of their teen years and giggle uncomfortably. Over time, foolish digital pasts will simply become part of the cultural
Young people today are doing what young people have always done: trying to figure out who they are. By putting themselves in public for others to examine, teens are working through how others' impressions of them align with their self-perceptions. They adjust their behavior and attitudes based on the reactions they get from those they respect. Today's public impression management is taking place online.
Once again, adults are upset by how the younger generation is engaging with new cultural artifacts; this time, it's the Internet. As with all moral panics around teenagers, concern about who might harm the innocent children is coupled with a fear of those children's devilish activities. To complicate matters, many contemporary teens are heavily regulated and restricted while facing excessive pressures to succeed. The conflicting messages adults convey can be emotionally damaging.
What is seen as teens' problematic behavior can also be traced back to the narratives that mainstream media sell to teens—including the celebrity status given to Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan. Thanks to a number of complex social factors, narcissism is on the rise. Narcissists seek fame. Reality TV shows tell teens that full exposure is a path to success, so how can we be surprised that attentionseeking teens reveal all? Not all teens want this kind of attention, but cultural norms have shifted, and the Web has become both a place for friends and a space to seek attention.
So, what does all this imply for the company in this case? Many young people have a questionable online presence. If Hathaway Jones doesn't want to hire these people, it'll miss out on the best minds of my generation. Bright people push the edge, but what constitutes the edge is time dependent. It's no longer about miniskirts or rock and roll; it's about having a complex digital presence.
Naturally, there'll always be a handful of young people who manage to go through adolescence and early adulthood without any blemishes on their record. Employers need people who play by the rules, but they also need "creatives." Mimi is a creative, and for the job Fred is trying to fill, a traditionalist just won't do. Fred should listen to his own instincts and hire Mimi. I'd advise him to open a conversation with her immediately so that they can strategize together about how to handle potential challenges posed by employees' online practices.
I think Fred will learn a lot from that experience. My generation isn't as afraid of public opinion as his was. We face it head-on and know how to manage it. We digitally document every love story and teen drama imaginable and then go on to put out content that creates a really nuanced public persona. If you read just one entry, you're bound to get a distorted view. That's why I would also advise Mimi to begin creating her own Google trails. She should express her current thoughts on China, reflecting on how she has fine-tuned her perspective over the years. Part of living in a networked society is learning how to accessorize our digital bodies, just as we learn to put on the appropriate clothes to go to the office.
danah m. boyd (email@example.com) is a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Berkeley, and an adviser to major media corporations. She maintains a blog at www.zephoria.org/thoughts/