Not-so-private Web profiles

Internet postings intended for friends can be the source long after for `digital dirt'

October 18, 2007|By John-John Williams IV | John-John Williams IV,SUN REPORTER

An Eastern Shore university president posts vacation photos with potentially offensive captions on an Internet social networking site. Eight sororities at Towson University are sanctioned after members display photos showing underage drinking on their Web sites. A middle school teacher in Howard County includes revealing photos of herself that draw the ire of parents.

In each incident, those who placed them found that posting items for friends to see on an Internet socializing site such as MySpace.com or Facebook.com can be the electronic equivalent of plastering notices on billboards outside their schools. And they are not alone. Across the nation, people with Internet profiles intended for friends are being reminded that the information they post on their personal sites can be used against them.

Janet Dudley-Eshbach, president of Salisbury University since 2000, recently removed her Facebook.com profile after a television station discovered a picture taken on her vacation to Mexico in which she is shown pointing a stick toward her 21-year-old daughter and a Hispanic man with the caption "beat off the Mexicans because they were constantly flirting with my daughter." A caption with a second photo on the site, of a tapir, a piglike animal, referred to the size of its genitalia.

William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, said he talked to Dudley-Eshbach and did not expect to take any disciplinary action.

Five sororities at Towson University have been placed on social probation until spring break after campus officials discovered Internet pictures of underage drinking during an event. In addition, three sororities have been placed on limited probation for creating an environment in which the activity occurred.

In Howard County, school officials investigated complaints from parents that Kandyce Parfitt, a seventh-grade language arts teacher, told students where to find scantily clad pictures of her on MySpace and on a Web site for aspiring models. School officials said they believe Parfitt's explanation that she never told students about the sites and that the students simply stumbled upon them.

`Digital dirt'

"The online environment makes people very susceptible to doing things that they will regret," said Patricia Wallace, writer of the 1999 book The Psychology of the Internet. "The irony is that in case after case, these archives come back to bite them, and people continue to do it."

Dudley-Eshbach said she took the photograph of her daughter on a family vacation in Mexico and that it was meant to be shared only with family and close friends. She removed her profile from Facebook after she was asked about the photos by WBOC-TV in Salisbury.

"My understanding was that, with my privacy settings in Facebook, my page could be viewed only by those to whom I granted access," she said.

"I live in a glass house, the president's house on campus," Dudley-Eshbach said. "It makes me feel that I can't have a personal life. I do apologize to anyone who took offense. I'm sincerely sorry if anyone found these pictures objectionable."

Kirwan said, "I think she's acknowledged that this was a mistake. I think both her statement and her action in taking the pictures down are appropriate."

People typically get into trouble with "digital dirt" - photos, blog comments, and other personal information floating through cyber space - because they do not have personal contact with the viewer. This lack of interaction prohibits them from gauging the social acceptance of content through visual reactions, experts say.

"People will say things that are more aggressive, abrupt or more intimate or revealing," said Wallace, senior director for information technology and distance education at the Johns Hopkins University's Center For Talented Youth. "You don't know who your audience is. You don't have facial expressions to look at. You have no visual nuances to pick up on to moderate behavior."

Towson University officials used Facebook.com photos taken a month ago during "Bid Day" - an annual event during which prospective members are matched with sororities - to confirm reports of drinking there, according to Teri Hall, associate vice president for student affairs.

As a result of the social sanctions, five sororities will not have a "clean slate" until September, Hall said.

Howard County school officials have been investigating Parfitt since spring, when parents informed them about her pictures on MySpace.com and on a modeling site that allows participants to post racy pictures.

As a result of the school system's inquiry, Parfitt allegedly took down the sites this spring. But as recently as yesterday, Web sites with photos of the teacher in a bra could be accessed. School officials say the sites are bogus and that someone is trying to sabotage the teacher.

Some parents say Parfitt crossed the line and should be fired, especially since the modeling site displayed nude photos of other models.

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