Social Media and Online Reputation: A Case Study

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Your social media posts really do make a difference to your online reputation. And your online reputation really does impact your off-line life.

If you have any doubt about that, consider the lesson learned by ten students accepted into Harvard College, as part of its Class of 2021. All ten had their admission offers rescinded after Harvard officials learned of a private Facebook messaging group they all took part in. Group members traded crude memes and offensive humor that school administrators have deemed unacceptable.

Checking Online Profiles

“For better or worse, social media has become an established factor in college admissions,” said Yariv Alpher, executive director of research at Kaplan Prep. “It’s more important than ever for applicants to make wise decisions.”

Making wise decisions means being smart about what you put on the Internet, where all the world can see your posts. At least thirty-five percent of college admissions officers say they check applicants’ online profiles, and with the steady growth in social media popularity, that is not likely to change.

Those would-be Harvard students all joined an official Harvard Class of 2021 Facebook group. That moderated group, said a participant who was not among those penalized, began in a spirit of light-hearted fun. But the Harvard Crimson reported that some of the students wanted “a more R-rated” meme group, and formed a racier offshoot.

“These students behaved immaturely and offensively,” wrote Erica Goldberg, an Ohio Northern assistant law professor and self-described free speech enthusiast. “What Harvard did in response was much worse.”

Nothing Sacred

Members of that offshoot group held nothing sacred. According to the Crimson, they traded memes and images that made fun of sexual assault and the Holocaust. They told ethnic jokes, and even made light of child abuse.

When school officials found out, everything hit the fan. Participants were contacted, and notified that their futures as Harvard students were under review. In the end, ten had their acceptances revoked.

The episode has touched off a debate among free speech advocates. Assistant law professor Goldberg said that breaking social taboos with humor can ease tension around sensitive subjects.

But Jessica Zhang, a member of Harvard’s Class of 2021 who did not take part in the Facebook group, agreed with Harvard’s decision. Those offensive memes and messages, she said, revealed the group participants’ true characters. “There are so many topics that just should not be joked about.”

Another incoming Harvard student agreed. “You have your First Amendment rights,” he said. “But when you apply [to Harvard], you sign an honor code to be good and virtuous.”

The First Casualties?

Meme groups are becoming increasingly popular on campuses nationwide. They’ve been identified not just at Harvard, but at Yale, Princeton, Columbia, the University of California Berkley, and other prominent institutions. They’re supposed to be private, but word always gets out, and the consequences can be devastating.

“Keep in mind, everything with your name on it or linked to you on the Internet is in the public domain,” said Kimberly Mauldin, a Human Resources professional. If you have a lot of content about yourself linked to your Facebook page, anyone might find it. “It takes no more than a few minutes of idle clicking to connect the dots to your other profile.”
Commenting on the Harvard situation, a Twitter user asked, “Are these the first casualties of the college meme wars?”

Social Media and Online Reputation Management

Not all colleges and universities screen the online personas of applicants, nor do all employers. But it is an increasingly common practice.
Virtually everyone has an online presence, and thus an online reputation, and it needs to be carefully managed. Failure to do so can lead to serious problems. Online Reputation Management experts recommend:

  • Only post those things you are comfortable sharing with everyone
  • Remove any posts, videos, or images that may embarrass you
  • Monitor the Internet for new references to you
  • Always be a positive online presence
  • Learn the long-term consequences social media activity can have on your online reputation

A Valuable Lesson

Free speech is a growing issue on campuses nationwide. Many of them have experienced disturbances because of scheduled appearances by speakers with controversial reputations. Whether the issue played a role in Harvard’s decision to rescind those admission offers, however, is not clear. “We do not comment publicly on the admissions status of individual applicants,” college officials told the Crimson.

What is clear is that social media posts, even those you think are private, can come back to haunt you. The best strategy is to build the strongest, most positive online reputation you possibly can.

Erica Goldberg, the assistant law professor, says the students should be admitted into Harvard. Humor is not a threat, she wrote, even humor in the worst possible taste. “This was an absurd way for incoming freshmen to prove to themselves that they can still be ridiculous and inappropriate, even if Harvard is a serious place.” And the memes were meant to be private.

“These students may not go to Harvard,” Goldberg concluded. “But they have unfortunately been taught a valuable lesson.”


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