Do You Google? (Or Facebook, Flickr and Myspace)

By Jane

What do you hide from your coaches? Everyone hides some things. You pretend that you’re tired from Friday’s practice when you’re struggling on Saturday morning, even though you were really out until late the night before. The mild case of food poisoning was actually induced by vodka. In most cases, you’d never tell you coach a thing. I may have, back my day. My club coach, with whom many of you are quite familiar, would have laughed, told me my ills were entirely of my own making and would have stuck with whatever fun schedule he’d composed. He would have teased me about my self-imposed suffering during intervals. Honestly, I’d rather be teased and be honest. Humour always makes training go by faster.

However, most of you hide things. There’s nothing surprising about that, but I have to ask you: do you hide things well?

If you’re into swimming and have a presence on the Internet, you probably don’t. There is no reason why you should feel safe in the knowledge that you privatised your Facebook profile or MySpace page. Security-obsessed Facebook is more full of more privacy holes than the eternally-broken MySpace. I will demonstrate what I mean by this in a moment.

Do you have a blog or an online journal? Do your friends? What about a Flickr account? Do you know what ends up on the Internet, tagged with your name, featuring your face? And can your coach work a search engine?

Most of my swimming friends use various online services and they disclose a lot of information about their lives. Many of them are smart about what they post, making sure that nothing untoward is exposed to anyone, strangers and search engines included. However, some of them part with an incredible amount of sensitive information in full view of the public, Google, Yahoo, Live Search, Technorati, and a multitude of other services.

Facebook is, and always has been, a walled garden. If you have never used the site, here is what I mean: you cannot view the majority of the site’s content unless you have a Facebook account and are signed into the service. Even if I wanted to show the world my profile, I couldn’t. This is my public profile. You have to be signed into the site and either be a person’s friend or be in their network in order to see more information about them. In my case, you have to be my “friend.”

When you’re signed into your Facebook account, you can specify privacy settings that disallow anyone but your designated friends from viewing the profile. If you choose to make your profile public to people within the same “networks” at you on Facebook, you can prevent people who aren’t you friends from seeing certain parts of your profile. Additionally, you can even block some of your friends from seeing things within your profile as well. This is a sweet feature if your boss, coach, parent, ex-boyfriend, etc, becomes your online friend and yet you don’t want to show them absolutely everything.

But what you can’t account for is the privacy settings of other people. I’m focusing on Facebook here because that’s my online hangout of choice. I have profiles at Bebo and MySpace that I rarely use. Facebook, on the other hand, acts as my social network, my event planner, my photo album, my bookmarking service (StumbleUpon aside. Hi Stumblers!), my instant messenger and my socially-focused email inbox. Suffice to say, I have a Facebook problem and need help. But I digress: Being an early adopter of Facebook, I know what I’m talking about when I say that your privacy settings at Facebook mean less than you think.

While I doubt that most swim coaches know their way around social networks yet, it won’t take long before coaches can do more than just “Google” your name. (Warning: if Yahoo is their search engine of choice and dodgy pictures of you have turned up on Flickr, you’re in trouble.) Since Facebook opened its doors to people who do not have university-affiliated email addresses in September 2006, there is nothing stopping your swim coaches from creating a profile there and potentially accessing your information.

“But,” you say. “I know how to use Facebook. I went to my privacy page and I specified that no one aside from my friends can see my profile. I also disallowed search engines from finding my public profile, like the one you’ve linked to above. In fact, just to be on the safe side, I blocked people from even searching for my name or seeing my listing in my friends’ profiles! You’re wrong: Facebook’s privacy settings are impenetrable.”

Not so. It’s true that Facebook is bloody fantastic at letting you control what you show people of your information. However, what of your friends whose profiles are open like 24 Hour Fitness? All of their pictures, including pictures of you, are available to anyone who wishes to see them. Not only that, but if one of your friends comments on one of your pictures, anyone who visits their profile can look through all the pictures in the album which they made a comment about, even if your profile and information is set to the highest level of security. Yeah. That bit was in bold. It doesn’t matter how many privacy features you’ve enabled, this holds true.

Do you know who can see these pictures? Potentially: everyone

So take this situation: Your friend is a Freshman at the college you’re desperate to attend. She is on the swim team and is Facebook-friends with the coach. This isn’t as uncommon as you’d think: I was Facebook-friends with one of my coaches during college.

You upload pictures that the college coach wouldn’t approve of, but you’re okay! Your profile isn’t visible to anyone but your friends. Your Freshman friend comments on some of your pictures and her college coach visits her profile. He or she sees your friend’s comments and clicks through to the pictures. Due to this particular Facebook security hole, the coach can click through all the pictures in your album, which could number as many as sixty. That is the maximum number of pictures that Facebook will allow in one album.

Personally, I find it unfortunate that swimmers have to hide their social lives. If I were a coach, I’d like to think that my swimmers know how to have a good time, but I’m weird like that and I’ll never be a coach. However, the status quo is that college coaches don’t like it when college swimmers engage in college-esque activities, like drinking, partying, dressing up in silly clothes and generally making arses of themselves. They find it even more unappetising when high schoolers engage in similar activities. And don’t preach “the drinking age” at me. I have a doctrine of bile to spew about that which you really don’t want to hear.

Basically, we’re stuck in a situation where people have to hide their activities from their elders. It’s kind of fun to to be in my position, where I don’t have to worry about what a potential coach may think anymore. I’m also now a member of an industry where the consumption of alcohol isn’t exactly frowned upon. But I do remember deliberately censoring the pictures I put up on Facebook for fear only of coaches and college athletics administrators coming across the pictures and disapproving of my conduct. That I was over 21 (and, of course, 18) and not breaking the law in any way didn’t matter: I had to be careful. And many of my peers are not nearly as careful as I was.

Recently, I saw a friend of mine express to another friend that she “hated” their coach. (This is not on a team of which I was ever a member.) The girl in question also stated that she was going to quit come the end of the swim season and hoped other swimmers would do the same. She also said that she hadn’t yet told the coach that she was going to quit.

I was dumbstruck. Out of curiosity, I signed out of the social network I was using (not Facebook) and went to see if this conversation was available if one was not “friends” with either party. Let’s just say that if this coach knows how to use the Internet and is at all interested in the online dealings of his (her? Not telling) swimmers, (s)he already knows this information, plus a whole lot more.

Abstinence-only isn’t going to help here, so even if I were a fan of such education (which I’m not), I’d not endorse it here. I’m not going to tell you to behave like a saint and stay off the Internet as a guarantee that everything will be all right. You’re allowed to have a good time every now and then, and you can’t help what your friends upload to the Internet. Aside from making sure you’re not involved in any truly scandalous stories or photos that might end up online, the only thing you can do is protect yourself as well as you can.

Find out if your friends privatise their profiles. On Facebook, “untag” yourself in pictures of which you aren’t proud. Don’t upload pictures that you’d not want others to see. If you must share the pictures on Facebook, delete friends’ comments on pictures, due to the aforementioned security hole. Remeber that when it comes to services like Flickr, you can’t control what friends upload, and that you can’t control whether or not they assign your name to certain photographs. Again, Flickr pictures rank very well at Yahoo because Yahoo owns Flickr. If Microsoft ends up acquiring Yahoo (despite today’s rejection of Microsoft’s bid), Flickr pictures may well end up ranking well at MSN / Live, too.

In the coming years, coaches will increasingly use the Internet to research potential team members and scholarship recipients. Take advantage of the online attention you may receive by managing your reputation through services like (although you might want to check out some of the problems I found with that service as well).

Be careful about what you upload to social networking sites.

And take action, as opposed to being defensive! Start a blog. Create a website. How would you like to dominate the search results pages for a search for your name? Take a page out of high school softball player Lauren Boser‘s book and be proactive about your online identity. Neglecting to take care of yourself in the Internet may cost you an education, but this is almost completely within your control. In my industry, we call it reputation management. I suggest you give it a a Google :)