What's worse than doing something stupid? Doing something stupid on social media.
It's a simple lesson, but one that's more important than ever for all of us — not just teenagers or internship-seeking college students — to understand. Our digital footprints can affect our lives in deeper and more meaningful ways than ever before.
Director James Gunn built a career saying controversial and shocking things. But when alt-right social media personality and conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich drew attention to old tweets in which the director joked about pedophilia and rape, Gunn was fired from his role as director of Guardians of the Galaxy. "My days saying something just because it's shocking and trying to get a reaction are over," he wrote on Twitter.
Earlier this month, The New York Times announced that journalist and lawyer Sarah Jeong, known for her coverage of the tech industry's treatment of women and workers of color and her work exploring online harassment, would be joining the company's editorial board as a lead writer on technology.
After The Times' announcement, a group of alt-right Twitter accounts began posting screenshots of tweets that Jeong had written several years prior, insisting that they were evidence of racial bias. Jeong apologized and explained the tweets by saying that she had endured online harassment and threats of violence, and chose to "counter-troll" her harassers, and the Times supported her.
It's not just members of the media and entertainment industry whose past social media usage has created problems in their present lives, though. Major League Baseball has had to contend with racist and homophobic tweets issued in the past by Brewers reliever Josh Hader, Braves starter Sean Newcomb and Nationals shortstop Trea Turner. Though each of the men were teens when they wrote the offensive tweets, The Ringer highlights the response of Turner's Nationals teammate Sean Doolittle, who tweeted, "it's not like you can accidentally post a slur."
These cases are simply the most recent and highest-profile examples, and most job seekers aren't vying for public or controversial roles. Still, it's necessary that every worker face their digital past. As cases of social media malfeasance continue to come to light, it raises the question: Should we just delete it all?
CNBC Make It spoke with experts to help you determine if deleting is the best choice for you:
The experts we spoke with agreed that deleting social media posts or an entire social media profile should not be a default decision. "You shouldn't delete posts or feeds," Gunjan Rawal, social media strategist for Intel, tells CNBC Make It.
In fact, Rawal says that deleting information from the internet may not even be entirely possible. "Content can always be cached and it's best to acknowledge something and move on," she says. "Your audience tends to be more forgiving if you are honest and transparent."
Not only is honesty the best policy, but trying to hide part of your past can actually make things worse, says Danny Rubin, author and owner of Rubin Education, a company that provides books and curriculum on business communication.
"If you've written something on Twitter or social media or something, it's saved for all eternity," argues Rubin. "You don't want to go and delete it because the odds of it compounding and turning into a much worse situation are much greater when you start to play those games. You have to own up what you've done, so that life can move on."
Rubin endorses Jeong's process. "She stood by it and she did her best to put it in context in that she was writing this sort of 'anti-white sentiment' in a sarcastic tone to combat slurs that were leveled at her," says Rubin. "If she had gone and deleted everything but someone had saved it — which plenty of people already had — and she had acted like she never did it, my guess is The New York Times would have chosen to cut their ties."
Lauren McGoodwin, Founder and CEO of Career Contessa, agrees that deleting is not always the best choice but says that for the average worker, there are some instances in which it can be prudent.
"It totally depends on the industry you're in and company you want to work for," McGoodwin tells CNBC Make It.
Among other things, McGoodwin's company interviews employers and publishes information about whether they actively look at an applicant's social media presence. This information, she says, can be helpful as someone weighs the decision to delete.
If you learn that a company will take your social media presence into serious consideration, the next step is deciding if your values align with the company's. If you still want the job, there's nothing wrong with doing some light cleaning, pruning and polishing of your social media persona to make sure it reflects the type of employee you'd like to be.
"You should definitely delete your social media history if you've been inappropriate," explains McGoodwin, especially when you have said something hateful or hurtful. "But why would you want to work somewhere if you have to delete your whole social media history? It clearly doesn't align with you. So it depends."
Most decent people haven't hurled hateful slurs across the internet. The average worker is more concerned about how to create a social media presence that will help advance their career. McGoodwin says there is a simple equation for this process.
"You can apply the 80/20 rule," she says. "If 80 percent of your stuff is bad and only 20 percent is worth keeping, you can probably afford to get rid of the whole thing and start over. If it's the opposite, and only 20 percent needs a little bit of improvement, you can go through and clean those up."
If you do decide to that deleting your social media content is the best course of action, there are several options you can take.
You can go through all of you old posts, photos and messages and delete anything that you think is unsavory. The second and most extreme option you can take is to delete your social media accounts. While this option may provide peace of mind, it can make it difficult to connect with friends, coworkers and potentials networking contacts. The final option that workers have is to use an application to help them pinpoint the types of content they want deleted.
There are several services available to workers who are looking for this type of solution. For instance, on Twitter, free applications like TweetDelete and TwitWip allow users to quickly delete parts of their Twitter history . If you are willing to cough up some cash for your social media cleanse, The Verge recommends low-cost applications such as TweetDeleter and TweetEraser.
If all of this math sounds overwhelming, don't worry — your instincts may be more helpful thank you think. "Most of us can understand, at a base level, if we have been mean-spirited or disrespectful," says Rubin. "It's often a gut instinct."
Trust your gut to know if you need to own up to your mistakes or if you simply need a social media face-lift.
Rubin admits that it can be increasingly difficult to teach young people this instinct when public figures often act disrespectfully online.
"Our president is often rude and rash and he became president, so how do you rectify that?" says Rubin. "I believe the next generation will say, 'that's not how leaders should act.'"
Like this story? Subscribe to CNBC Make It on YouTube!