Social Intelligence: Will that crazy picture from college come up in a background check?

(The following is a writing sample for a job opportunity with AOL.)
By Dan Friedell
July 25, 2011

Social Intelligence site screenshot.

Social Intelligence home page.


You’re 30 and looking to move up the corporate ladder. In the last few years, you’ve avoided unemployment (no small feat as your company downsized), socked away a few thousand dollars in your 401(k) and are even thinking of moving out of your cramped apartment if you can scratch up a down payment for a house.

That kind of progress is admirable, and as you fill out an application for a job at a new company, (dreaming of that raise that would make the new-home down payment a reality) don’t forget about your past. While a background check that likely includes a credit report and verification of academic degrees is, and has been, the norm for years, some companies are being even more thorough than that.

According to a story by Gizmodo posted earlier this month, companies like Social Intelligence are now running social media background checks on potential employees. Do you have a skeleton lurking in your digital closet? Just because you made a snarky post on a forum back in 2004 or made a comment on a friend’s party-all-night photo from Las Vegas a few years ago and forgot about it, doesn’t mean a computer will.

But before you spit up your latte and log-in to Facebook and that MySpace account that you forgot to deactivate a few years ago to do a clean sweep, take a look at what Gizmodo’s writer Mat Honan figured out. The gadget-review website submitted six of its staff members for background checks, and Honan’s profile was the only one flagged.

A few things to know:

  • Social Intelligence scans the most recent seven years of Internet history
  • It does not pass along photos
  • It looks for inflammatory keywords linked to your name (racist or sexist comments, assertions of violent acts and references of drug use)
  • It does not generate a report if a candidate passes the background check

Honan, who has admittedly worked for some snarky, subversive publications and has cultivated an edgy Internet presence, says he failed the check miserably.

Our sympathy goes out to him. But that’s not the point of his story.

He scanned Social Intelligence’s report and turned it into a slideshow on the site, complete with comments.

In the end, Honan says it’s worth being wary about these Internet background-check companies. But they have their limitations. For example, he notes that some secondary Facebook accounts belonging to his colleagues didn’t come up. Sketchy photos from his Flickr account and posts on Twitter that were accessible via a Google search also failed to make the cut. Perhaps this is because the reports generated by Social Intelligence are created by human beings, not just some computer program, so there’s some judgment in what qualifies as flaggable behavior and what does not. He writes:

As an employee, you don’t want potential employers knowing certain things about you that might make you a less attractive candidate due to their personal biases. As an employer, even if none of those things matter, just accidentally finding them out can be a problem.


All this goes to show that job-hunting today, and just keeping a job, is a mine field. See Honan’s report below:

Mat Honan’s Social Media Background Check

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