Long-forgotten spring break photos may rouse chuckles when found by friends online, but they could mean staying unemployed if they're found by a hiring human resources manager. And considering that federal regulations now allow a review of Facebook and Twitter posts within routine employee background checks, it's more likely than ever before a company is judging job candidates by the content of their timelines.
"Social media and the broader Internet is the new town square," said Chris Randall, co-founder of North Shore-based information solutions company Social Media Information.
"It's a public forum, and an individual or employee's behavior or actions in that public forum can negatively or positively affect the company. So it's only natural companies are going to want to understand who it is they're hiring or who it is they've employed."
Founded last June by Mr. Randall, his brother Adam and partners Chad Killian and Drew Sokol, SMI's first products were designed to make Facebook searches a little easier for employers.
But the company's latest release, Social Fingerprint, revamps those products in a way that turns the tables in favor of job seekers.
"Social Fingerprint really is a response to our customers, to a new market," Adam Randall said. "This wasn't our original path when we started the business ... but this is really in response to dozens and dozens of phone calls and emails from people saying, 'I want to be able to run a search on myself. I want to be able to find out what's out there about me.' "
The term "Social Fingerprint" also happens to be a registered trademark of the New York-based workers' rights organization, Social Accountability International, and SMI's application to patent the term under a different organizational category is under review, Chris Randall said.
By 2011, there was no question that the majority of the country's employers -- around 70 percent, according to Adam Randall -- were looking up some form of social content on potential employees. With few streamlined systems to check multiple accounts at once, most companies outsourced the job or designated employees to pour over job candidates' pages.
When the Federal Trade Commission determined last May that Santa Barbara, Calif.-based Internet background screening service Social Intelligence was in compliance with Fair Credit Reporting Act guidelines regarding collection and distribution of personal data, the floodgates opened for companies such as SMI to customize software to meet the new demand.
Social Media Information's SMIAware, a pre-employment social media background check software designed for consumer reporting agencies such as Social Intelligence, was one of the first products unveiled. The private company did not disclose its sales figures.
With Social Fingerprint -- a free online service that individuals can use to monitor Facebook, Twitter, Myspace, LinkedIn and the Internet at large for negative content associated with their name -- much of the technology behind the social media search remains similar to what's used by consumer reporting agencies.
The technology conducts a targeted crawl -- a search over several sites -- seeking specific keywords on social media sites and the broader Internet to weed out pages with negative content about clients. Links to pages that show the negative keywords are sent to clients. Reports can be sent daily, weekly or monthly at their discretion. Customers can then take action to have incorrect information removed.
While clients can access the service for free today, the group plans to charge premiums for advanced services to generate profits. They will use revenues from SMIAware to support development of the premium features.
Launched in mid-October, Social Fingerprint now has more than 100 users. To date, the SMI team has put approximately $100,000 of the partners' own funds into the four-employee company.
While the idea of social media reputation management software isn't new, the team believes using the software to aid the average Joe might be an emerging trend.
Leslie Hobbs, public relations director for Redwood City, Calif.-based Reputation.com, said her company launched in 2006 to aid the growing number of people aiming to scrub online histories free of dirt. "There's no doubt that reputation is the new currency in today's digital economy," said Ms. Hobbs in an emailed response.
"Given how much people use search tools -- to find products and services, learn more about potential new hires, coworkers or even friends, and get current information -- everyone needs to be aware of what their online details say about them."
Chris Vendilli, founder of the South Side-based Pro From Go online marketing and reputation management company, said his social media reputation management cases usually surround a company figurehead seeking to hide mishaps such as DUIs or civil court cases, but he wouldn't be surprised to see it expand to include job seekers and other concerned individuals.
Pro From Go uses search-engine optimization -- a method of promoting specific links so they appear at the top of a search engine's results -- to bury the good news and promote the bad.
"I think as far as a business, reputation management is going to really explode," he said. "The industry as a whole is going to grow and partly as a result of personal reputation management being something people think about more and more."
Although SMI would like to see the industry grow, Adam Randall cautioned that there are still no guarantees.
Efforts are under way to limit what employers can directly demand from applicants or workers. Some states -- such as California, Maryland and Illinois -- have already passed laws prohibiting employers from asking job applicants for social media passwords or usernames, while 14 other states have introduced legislation with similar restrictions.
There are plans to expand the keywords list used in Social Fingerprint to include positive feedback, a change that the team believes would help it find business one way or another with the collection of data that comes from social media comments long forgotten.
"We have a few people that are users that are mentioned frequently in newspaper articles, and they use it as kind of a digital scrapbook," Adam Randall said.
That may serve a difference purpose in the job hunt. "That itself can be used multiple ways," Mr. Killian noted. "Going for an interview, if you have a scrapbook of positive attributes found on the Internet, it could be a good thing to showcase against other talent."
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