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Originally published May 7, 2011 at 10:00 PM | Page modified May 7, 2011 at 10:06 PM

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Danny Westneat

A gr8 kid's tweets not exactly LOL

I thought I had found a good story a while back. It was about a high-school kid, born in a refugee camp, who beat the longest of odds to go to college.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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I thought I had found a good story a while back. It was about a high-school kid, born in a refugee camp, who beat the longest of odds to go to college.

His story appealed to me because he defied the stereotype that our schools can't do much right, or that poor kids who start out behind just stay there.

His story was going to be a little reminder that what we say is the promise of America can still be true.

But then I looked at his Twitter feed.

Let's just say that most of it can't be printed in the newspaper. It isn't only foul language. It's racial cracks, boasts about getting high, jokes — or maybe not jokes — about cheating on tests and skipping school. All there for anyone to read.

I don't know what on that Twitter page is true. But I knew as soon as I saw it that my story about him was dead.

That happened some time ago. But I've been wondering about the implications of it ever since. Last week, teenage tweets were again in the news, playing a role in the fake-Spanish-class scandal at Garfield High School.

Do kids know this stuff may haunt them? Or do they think the rest of us can't see?

And do others look at these sites, too — college admissions officers, say, or employers? Is your Twitter or Facebook page becoming a sort of unofficial, backdoor résumé?

I asked the head of admissions at the University of Washington, Philip Ballinger, whether the UW checks out its applicants online. He said it's not a regular part of the school's screening.

"However, if an applicant lists something truly remarkable (winner of a prestigious national science or service award, an Olympic athlete, etc.), we might check to see if it's true," he said.

Still, a recent survey by the National Association for College Admission Counseling found that a fourth of colleges now use search engines or Facebook as "sources of additional information for critical decision making."

"No longer can students place damaging material online without potential consequences," the study said.

A social-media researcher for Microsoft, Danah Boyd, says it's wrong to vet teens — the way I did — based on their tweets.

Twitter is more like talking, goes the theory. What's there is filled with in-jokes, codes and posturing. It's easy to misunderstand or take out of context.

In that world, whether something is "public or private" is more complicated than it seems, Boyd writes.

True. On the Twitter site of the kid I met, what I had assumed on first pass were boasts about him smoking pot were really re-tweeted song lyrics.

In the end, though, I didn't have time to vet each tweet. I wasn't willing to write an educational success story about a kid who would also send out tweets like these — even though I'm certain the inspiring parts of his story are true.

Said a Harvard interviewer, during a debate on the website Quora:

"Does a Facebook profile or a website prejudice me before I meet a candidate? Yes. Absolutely. If you care about your college career, one of the best things you can do is Google yourself, then pull anything off you wouldn't voluntarily show your parents' friends."

I later contacted the kid to suggest he take his Twitter feed down. Before it hurts him with something that matters a lot more than a newspaper story. Like a job.

Or maybe there's a new culture developing in which it's OK to tweet anything, no matter how outrageous, without worry.

I think back to all the idiotic things I said and thought when I was 17. I was just yapping, too. The difference is my yaps weren't published on a global media platform.

But kids don't view what they're doing as public writing. Twitter is jammed now with stuff from local high-schoolers that, when I read it, seems too raw and best left private. Yet it isn't taken all that seriously by them. It's just talk.

I don't know where this will end up. But you can bet it's going to go a lot more in the teens' direction, and fast, than it will toward mine.

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

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About Danny Westneat

Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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