By Jamie Butow
Two weeks ago I wrote in the this space about the public tweets of several Bakersfield teens following the death of 18-year-old Breana Webb. The open social media profiles revealed a look at the activities of teens that many agree is unflattering. The volumes of feedback received on that column has sparked discussion about the openness of social media, what is and isn't appropriate to post, and the consequences of those posts.
I've received dozens and dozens of emails, several of which saying I had no right to "snoop" these profiles online. I've received threats and been called dozens of names by teens, most of which were also posted on public social media sites. But there were even more emails saying just the opposite, many from parents who said they are now going to keep a closer eye on thing their teens are saying online.
Good. What has been misunderstood by the naysayers is that all of these profiles were public -- open to anyone and everyone -- revealed by a simple Google search.
It isn't only journalists looking at profiles. One reader wrote to me to share how she used public social media profiles in her job.
"When I was working as a paralegal, Facebook and all the social media came in very handy. My office would file a complaint against a person or company, and then we would have to get them served. Many people or companies that don't pay their bills are very good at evading service and making themselves scarce. However, so many times they forgot about Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, etc. I can't tell you how many people I was able to serve because I could put information I found on the Internet together and compare it and add it to other information, and voila! There they were."
Last week's presidential election has turned even more light on the openness of social media. President Barack Obama's re-election sparked racially fueled posts on Twitter from all over the country.
Cyberspace bloggers at FloatingSheep.org documented the rise in racial hate speech on Twitter in the days following the election and mapped the results. Their findings showed a "fairly strong clustering of hate tweets centered in southeastern U.S. Another is noted as coming from Bakersfield.
"The unfortunate fact is that most states are not immune from this kind of activity. Racist behavior, particularly directed at African Americans in the U.S., is all too easy to find both offline and in information space," they write.
In fact, a prime example of this came from right here in the Central Valley.
Turlock resident Denise Helms, 22, in a posting shortly after the president's re-election Tuesday on her Facebook page, used a racial epithet and speculated on the likelihood of an assassination attempt.
Her post caught the attention of a lot of people and it eventually made its way to a television news station in Sacramento, which went to interview her about the comment.
According to an article in the Modesto Bee, Helms told the TV reporter, "I didn't think it would be that big of a deal. ... The assassination part is kind of harsh. I'm not saying like I would go do that or anything like that, by any means, but if it was to happen, I don't think I'd care one bit."
But other people cared.
Helms was fired from her job at Cold Stone Creamery. The store director called her comments "disgusting," that he received 20 angry messages from community members, and that having her work there was bad for business.
Possibly even more serious, the story caught the attention of a Secret Service agent in Sacramento. Making threats against the president is a felony.
Racist tweets after the election have also put some high school athletes on the bench.
A writer for Jezebel.com notes how high schools across the country are holding students accountable for their attitudes and activities on social media. After all, using racial epithets to describe the president on Twitter when your profile picture is you in your school's team uniform, doesn't look good for the school.
It's noted that many student athletes are required to sign a code of conduct, and tweeting publicly about taking part in illegal activities and making racists remarks about the president violates that policy.
The Jezebel.com article shows screenshots of many of the tweets, including one from a student at Redwood High School in Visalia. Most of the accounts have now been deleted.
Social media isn't private. The threats, the name-calling, the involvement in illegal activities are out there for anyone to access. Your posts show who you are, your thoughts, your activities -- and often your whereabouts.
Following the column on the tweets made by Webb and her friends, another reader wrote to me, "I hope your coverage of this tragedy makes people aware of the responsibilities and consequences of not understanding social media. It's ironic, isn't it, that juvenile court records are sealed ... yet their own accounts of their misbehavior will be forever accessible on the Internet, to anyone who cares to search for it."