Facebook reports 1.23 billion users, and I am “friends” with only about 38 of them. Statistics like that really keep any pretence of self-importance firmly in check as you mull over the sheer insignificance of your next wise or witty status update. As for the other 1.23 billion users, who really cares how bored you are at work or how much you hate your boss?   

Well, your boss does, actually. I wonder how many employees in the last 10 years have shared an intended private message on their public profile, resulting in their next status update being “Seeking new opportunity”. Thousands, tens of thousands?  A quick Google search of “embarrassing Facebook posts” brings up so many examples of employees misusing Facebook to get the sack that it really is not newsworthy any more. You would have thought that all employees would surely know by now that anything they put on Facebook could be used in evidence against them by their employer. Apparently not, if recent Employment Tribunal decisions highlighting the continuing trials and tribulations of Facebook misuse are anything to go by. Why do they do it?  

A recent report by Princeton researchers has likened Facebook to an infectious disease, or a drug. From a standing start in 2004 to a reported 1.23 billion users in 2014, it is an easy analogy to draw. As a comedian infamously once said, “the only problem with heroin is that it’s a bit moreish”. Facebook has become the social media equivalent, with users constantly checking their iPhones to see whether their latest post has generated any “likes” or “comments”. The desire to be seen to be popular is an addiction that has fuelled Facebook’s own popularity into the social media stratosphere. In the Facebook world of “one-upmanship”, people post the most excruciatingly embarrassing and inappropriate photos or comments seemingly without any care for the impact it may have on their current and future employment prospects, merely to trigger a response.     

If current employees are falling foul of the curse of Facebook posts, one can only imagine what horrors lie in wait as “Generation Facebook” moves out of the care-free world of a student life where every misdemeanour has been recorded permanently on Facebook.  A material percentage of the next generation of employees will be potentially unemployable as soon as a basic social media search is conducted against their name.  In an era where brand-protection is paramount, the merest whiff of something distasteful on Facebook could be the tipping-point between two otherwise closely matched candidates.   

So will the penny ever drop? What will it take for employees to stop broadcasting information on Facebook that they would never dream of sharing with their parents, let alone risk falling into their manager’s possession? Or is Facebook and its misuse by employees here to stay?    

Interestingly, the same Princeton researchers argue that, like the bubonic plague, Facebook will eventually die out. They forecast that it will lose 80% of its peak user base by 2017. The statistics also suggest that the popularity of Facebook is waning with the (even) younger generation.  Ten years on, the 20-somethings who kick-started the Facebook success story are still on Facebook. As their offspring approach their teenage years, it would seem that the attraction of sharing their most intimate teenage thoughts with friends is not quite so appealing when they know mum and dad are using the same platform in the next room.

But for many it may already be too late. A student life of debauchery and discriminatory Facebook posts will be the kiss of death to many graduates’ future career prospects, particularly those with aspirations to a glittering career in public office. The site is a rich hunting ground for those looking for any hint of scandal or improper behaviour. Once this dawns on the majority of Facebook’s 1.23 billion users, its popularity may wane just that little more quickly.   

And then like any addict, Facebook users will surely find another form of social media to put their employment prospects at risk. Enter stage right, Twitter, quickly developing a reputation for being the easiest way to lose your job in 140 characters or less, plus smart phones operated by not-so-smart employees.  And to think that only 11 short years ago the worst that could happen was inadvertently leaving your CV on the office photocopier.