By now it’s widely understood that online behavior has real-world consequences, especially when it comes to employment. Facebook photos can get you fired, as can a tasteless tweet or trollish Twitter account. But there was a brief era—I guess you’d call it Web 1.0—when the idea of your boss finding your blog seemed absurd.
Until it started to happen.
For 13 years, Heather Armstrong has kept a personal website under the name “dooce”—a typo of “dude” she finds hard to avoid in rapid-fire Instant Message chats. “Dooced” became a term for losing one’s job over a personal website when, in 2002, Armstrong’s dot-com startup terminated her employment because she had written satirical posts about her experience as a Web designer there.
“I started this website in February 2001,” she wrote in a subsequent warning to her readers. “A year later I was fired from my job for this website because I had written stories that included people in my workplace. My advice to you is BE YE NOT SO STUPID.”
Very few people heeded that advice in the decade to come.
In 2007, thriller author Jason Pinter became a high-profile victim of corporate self-preservation when he wryly noted that a novel promoted by Starbucks was selling better than one published by Random House, where he worked, even though the latter had been anointed by Oprah and Barnes & Noble.
After Pinter blogged about it, he said, “I got a call from RH brass asking me to delete the post, I did, and they fired me anyway.”
Facebook and Twitter did not yet provide the “moment-to-moment analysis” we expect today, so naturally, Gawker became the authority on the story. It hardly mattered that Gawker misreported the incident as if Pinter had leaked proprietary information, a fact pointed out in a MediaBistro follow-up report.
Reaching out to coworkers, friends, and Internet strangers, I collected dozens more embarrassing tales of dust-ups resulting from corporate online surveillance of employees. Pulling back the curtain was almost always what got people in trouble, and it didn't matter if what the company found was business or personal.
To take one fairly recent instance: A college classmate told me about working as a personal assistant to an eccentric filmmaker, “but she went through my Tumblr page and saw that I had referred to her dog and her daughter (not by name) … that was grounds and I lost the job, which was actually a good thing because she was... well... she was herself and we didn't get along so splendidly.”
Daily Dot reporter EJ Dickson was on the other side of exposé like this. In high school, she and some fellow theater kids shared a “cultlike” adoration for the woman who coached their improv comedy troupe. But when one boy developed a grudge against her and started digging up dirt online, everything changed overnight. He found a blog where the coach posted erotic content and complained about her students. “She didn't use our real names,” Dickson said, “but it was pretty easy to figure out who was who.”
It gets worse. “She essentially called one girl an uptight kiss-ass and this other kid a jerk and she devoted a whole blog post to me and made jokes about my body and who she’d heard (secondhand, and incorrectly) I was sleeping with at the time and how we should do erotic improv after school and snort coke off each other’s tits.”
Amazingly, the school didn’t fire her on the spot—it being 2006, well before “be careful what you say on social media” was stock wisdom—but the kids rejected her tearful apology and pleas to stay. She packed up and left.
“I barely knew what a blog even was, other than the three or four ska bands I followed on Xanga and LiveJournal,” Dickson noted. “She should've thanked her lucky stars that my parents are not the litigious types.”
Online footprints don’t just cost people the jobs they have; some folks never get hired in the first place. A source currently in grad school to study literature said she had “heard about an academic job candidate who didn't get hired because a search committee member thought his tweets were banal.”
A graphic designer explained how a “caustic” three-part series on his portfolio website titled “How Every Company Is Doing Recruiting Wrong” rubbed his own potential recruiters the wrong way, while a photo of some beer packaging, taken purely out of aesthetic interest, convinced another agency that he had a drinking problem.
“I’m a teetotaler,” he stressed, which points to a problem of context in this type of vetting. (He has since split the professional and personal halves of his website.)
For people who write about the Internet for a living, reporters on this site have a pretty bad track record when it comes to managing their online reputations.
Readers of the sports blog Deadspin might be familiar with writer Beejoli Shah. Her firsthand account of Quentin Tarantino’s toe-sucking technique, first composed in an email to friends, ended in her dismissal from a position with an L.A. brand-builder. “Somehow, I have learned absolutely nothing about being careful regarding what I put in writing,” she said, “especially on the Internet, where shit lives on forever.”
Staff writer Aja Romano had been working as a theater reviewer for her hometown newspaper for a little more than three years, “a gig I loved with all my heart,” when her editor called her a week before Christmas, 2003:
It was odd because he never called me, and also it was around “Someone pointed me towards... I guess it's your blog or something,” he said. “I'm kind of weirded out... I don't think you're going to be working for us anymore.” And then he hung up. To this day I don't know who tipped him off or why, or what weirded him out, but it was most likely the fact that I'd been writing and talking about Harry Potter slashfic.
One editor, who shall remain anonymous, found out that browsing history alone can lead to disaster:
Right out of college, or maybe even my last term, I had an internship at this nonprofit, which was more or less a way for bored housewives to feel like they had jobs (at least while I was there). To say I hated it was an understatement. One morning I came in and was told I was being let go because she'd looked at my browser history the night before and I'd Googled something along the lines ‘fun stuff to eat while you're high.’ I was young... and stupid, because I’d forgotten to clear my history. I was also looking for other jobs, which she saw.
Then there’s me.
In August of 2005, suffering through an internship for a global public relations firm in New York, I took to my Blogspot account to trash a hated supervisor. I may have used the phrase “hose beast.” God knows why I thought a company in the midst of creating a blog database would miss that screed—I figured leaving the names and client brands out had given me a buffer—but that same week, I was called down to a massive corner office where the head of human resources sat surrounded by her collection of thousands of Pez dispensers.
I was already struggling not to laugh when the stern woman slid a piece of paper across her desk: the offending blog post, printed out. How strange to see it that way, I thought. Security hauled me out of the building. The next day, I heard all about the office’s reaction from my fellow interns. “Everyone here thought what you wrote was amazing; they all want you on their team,” said one. “Well, except for [hose beast].”
As with many blog-firing sagas, a happy ending: I got an extra week of vacation and a real self-esteem boost. The only snag was that my future father-in-law had helped get me the job, and I couldn’t have him find out. (If you’re reading this, Jeff, I’m really sorry.)
Pinter, for his part, was hired as an editor at St. Martin's Press shortly after being canned by Random House; he went on to found Polis Books, a digital publisher.
The Daily Dot’s stoner editor “had a new job three weeks later that actually paid close to a living wage.”
Romano’s second life as a fanfic writer eventually came full circle. Her expertise in the field helped her build a career as a fandom reporter. That world is much more mainstream in 2014 than it was 11 years earlier.
After Shah’s Tarantino email went viral, she said, rather than “taking my second lease on life with grace and dignity and a modicum of reserve,” she “decided to go write stupid things on the Internet willingly at Gawker, the place that wrote about me first, because really, there's nothing quite like not learning your lesson in your 20s, right?”
Indeed, a fireable Web gaffe is often an indication, not always fully conscious, that the author craves a change of scenery or needs a little push in order to leave the nest and seek out fairer skies.
Nowadays, of course, the operators of gossip Twitter accounts are much more invested in secrecy, at least until they find another job. You also don’t need to actually work at a company to produce popular “insider” content—heck, you don’t even have to come up with the jokes yourself.
Lauren Bans, the former GQ writer who just outed herself as the woman behind @CondeElevator, said she didn’t expect her transcripts of office talk to attract so much attention, let alone spark an internal witch hunt at the publishing giant, but the dubious content from the parallel feed @GSElevator, written by a nonemployee, was clearly always intended to drum up intrigue and investment. Those updates will soon be adapted into a book, regardless of what the author’s résumé really says, or who he is.
Meanwhile, you can follow the barely anonymous (and wildly NSFW) blog of a heroin addict who shoots up and has sex at his place of business, often simultaneously, and is quite forthcoming with visual proof. He also details his method for reconciling his habit and his workday: “I would go pick up and it would cost me about an hour. But on paper, It would look like I worked a good full 8 hours. I could cram 7 and have it look like an 8. Nearing the end… I would be there all night sometimes. … That was sad. I just couldn’t hold it together anymore.”
As he’s apparently still employed, you’d have to think his boss has never heard of Tumblr.
Still, for all the jobs that have come to an abrupt end due to online antics, or soon will, there remain those rare occasions when the opposite narrative unfolds. This kind of recruitment looks to be on the rise. A media friend of mine was recently contacted by a PR outfit based on her sense of humor, demonstrated in tweets and Gawker comments. I’m often solicited to write for other websites (often for no pay, sadly) because of what I’ve published on my own.
Daily Dot contributor Mike Fenn wouldn’t be with us if not for a cutting-edge idea about landing an interview. Fenn had experienced two close calls when it came to mixing the Internet and work, once with an internal email that got to the wrong people, another time lying his way out of responsibility for an Open Diary riff that mocked his coworkers for their irritating coughs and loud chewing. Now he would flip the script in his favor.
Seeking new outlets for his material, Fenn had come across the Daily Dot and sent an email to founder and CEO Nicholas White. “I included my resume and a few dummy articles that I believe fit the mold of the publication, along with a letter explaining my sincere interest to join the team. No response.”
Then it hit him: He could make his application go viral. “First, I created a hidden page on my personal website that made a plea for White to review my samples and, at the very least, issue a response. It's still active.” Then he started tweeting the link to the Dot, about once an hour. “Finally, I gave White's email address to all of my Facebook friends and Twitter followers, asking them to write letters of recommendation for me—letters that would include the URL, of course. It may be easy for my lone initial email to slip by unnoticed—but 100 to 200 messages from different people would be a different story.” Indeed it was, and soon enough, Fenn had his reply from White. “I have to say, you have a lot of very nice friends,” White wrote. “Are you available to grab a half-hour call, say, late next week?”
Getting your foot in the door is easy. The real challenge, when it comes to the Web, is keeping that foot out of your mouth.
Illustration by Jason Reed