Mining Your Facebook Profile for Dirt

A new app, called Facewash, is the latest tool that aims to save the unsavvy social-network user from himself.

Facewash works by searching the comments posted on your wall, your status updates, comments on photos you’re tagged in, photos you posted, links you’ve ‘liked.” After connecting your Facebook (FB) account, the site scans your profile to find “dirty” words and potentially unsavory photos. Users can also search for specific terms if they think Facewash’s list might have missed something.

The app was launched by three college students as an entry in a hackathon hosted by the University of Pennsylvania last weekend. Facewash’s developers – Camden Fullmer, Daniel Gur, and David Steinberg, all computer science majors at Kent State University in Ohio – discussed the idea for the app on the drive to the competition. They saw the need for such a tool, particularly for college-age young adults like them who use Facebook a lot and probably have “things on there you wouldn’t want a future employer to see or your mother to see,” says Steinberg. “Why not help automate the process of finding the undesirable posts and comments you wouldn’t want others to find?”

The app won in the Best Hack for Students category by 10gen, a software company (the developers received a $500 prize).

Background check yourself

We all know by now (or should) that employers do a fair bit of online sleuthing to learn more about job candidates and weed out those whose online trails suggest they’re less-than-professional.

According to a 2012 survey by CareerBuilder, 37% of companies use social networks to research potential job candidates, and more than 65% of that group uses Facebook as their primary resource. The most common reason hiring managers are looking at social media is to see if candidates present themselves professionally, the survey said.

The usual no-no’s may sound obvious for those on the professional track: No drinking, drugs, nudity or profanity. Make sure your Facebook photos are G-rated and don’t make derogatory comments about previous employers, bosses or colleagues.

But an increased use of social media doesn’t correspond with an increase in web savvy. “Our data suggest that, as people continue to increase their online presence, the number of things we identify that are sexually explicit, potentially racist or displays of illegal activity only grows,” says Max Drucker, CEO and president of Social Intelligence, a company that performs social media background screening and investigations for employers.

And the potential for gaffes increases with Facebook’s new graph search feature, announced last week. The company’s new tool turns users’ shared information into a searchable database, and one reasonable concern – aside from privacy – is that the personal information will be more readily available and accessible to others. And apparently, it makes it easier for users to look dumb.

Dirty words

So what kind of content does Facewash flag? The developers said they wanted Facewash to cover a wide range of categories. Aside from the standard swear words, they included sexual and racist language.

“We took a comprehensive view of what the Internet as a whole considers less than desirable," Steinberg says. "We did extensive research into the types of text that might cause problems for people.”

What about that tagged photo of you at a party double-fisting tequila shots? For now, Facewash will only catch offending images through contextual tags or captions. (In other words, if the caption doesn’t say something to the effect of “getting drunk on tequila,” the app won’t flag it.) But image and object recognition is the next step for the developers. “Soon the tool will be able to flag that kind of photo without the accompanying text,” Steinberg said. Eventually they want Facewash to be able to pick up on objects like beer bottles or the infamous red cups that college kids do much of their drinking out of.

Since launching the app, Fullmer, Gur and Steinberg have been working on expanding its capabilities and adding new features. They also want to make Facewash available in other markets and languages. “Our particular interest now is to internationalize it, since it’s only in English now,” Steinberg says.

Other tools

There are other tools that aim to sanitize online identities that have been around for a while, including online reputation managers, which – for a fee – focus on finding and clearing negative content, posted anywhere online, about individuals or businesses.

Reppler is another service that helps users manage their online profiles; it tries to give a deeper picture of your online profile by analyzing not just your content but also the tone of the language you and your connections use.

Similar to Facewash, SocioClean, which was launched in 2011, targets college students and first-time job seekers. The platform allows users to scan and clean their social networks (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter) for any inappropriate content that might hurt their online reputation, according to Priyanshu Harshavat, the CEO. After the scan, it compiles the data into a document that grades the profiles based on appropriateness. While anyone can use the tool, SocioClean works with colleges that want to offer its students access to the platform. SocioClean currently has a licensing deal with UNC-Chapel Hill, with plans to add nine more universities in the next few months, Harshavat says.

Camden Fullmer, Daniel Gur, and David Steinberg presenting the application at the hackathon

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