In the beginning, we may have tended to think of the internet and social media as a sort of box into which we and our friends and family can drop messages, but only those we give the key to can actually open it up and read what’s in there. This quickly became an antiquated view for anyone who’s spent any time whatsoever on the web. Your parents or grandparents may still see Facebook as some strange new version of email, and that only you can see their posts, but the rest of us know: nothing is truly private, and nothing goes away.
Now read that last bit again: “Nothing goes away (away…away…away… (echo added for dramatic effect)).
So, think about something you might not want everyone to know about you. It could be anything from that time you drank so much that you wore your underwear on your head all night to an innocent online discussion in which you played devil’s advocate espousing an unfortunate opinion.
Now think of yourself as a prospective student interviewing at university or a responsible adult desperately searching for a job to justify the time and money spent at university. Things are going quite well, you think, until your interviewer casually mentions, “I checked you out on Facebook…”
Society can (and will) debate exactly how privacy should work in this era of information overload, but the reality right now is that anyone who has any interest in you, for whatever reason, can pretty easily find a great deal of information about you online. And that includes universities and prospective employers.
Whether you like it or not, you’ve got an online presence. Let’s talk about what you can do to make it work for rather than against you.
Your Digital Footprint
Most of us have a digital footprint of some kind, and it’s important to know what yours looks like so that you can be in control of it instead of it being in control of what people think of you. There are a variety of things that can make up your specific online presence.
The first part of your digital footprint is made up of all the bits and pieces of your existence that at some point have been made public, possibly by yourself, but usually by others. That time you played a tree in a play when you were 5, the time you took first place at a swim meet, the time you won an essay contest and it was printed in the paper, the website you created as a school project when you were 12; this is basically the unavoidable residue left behind by a life lived in a hyper-connected world.
The good news is that it’s generally nothing you need to worry about. Generally, this is the kind of information that your mother would have in a scrapbook to share with anyone willing to look. You may not be happy with that 12-year-old haircut, but employers and universities will likely find it charming, and it may even highlight some of your youthful accomplishments.
It is a good idea, however, to find this information (just Googling your name will round up much of it) so that you can see if there’s anything that you wouldn’t want others to see. If you do find something that doesn’t reflect well on you, the Data Protection Act is firmly on your side. There are legal restrictions on what companies can hold and display about you without your permission. If you’re unable to delete something on your own, contact the webmaster of the site in question and request that they remove it for you.
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and any number of other social media sites can be very powerful communication and socialization tools, but if you don’t use certain safeguards, the mere existence of a social media account can be roughly equivalent to strapping a camera and microphone to your forehead and giving universities and employers full access to the broadcast.
Luckily, social media sites generally have pretty robust privacy settings. The trick is knowing how to use them. Since sites update occasionally, the best way to keep up with proper security procedures is simply to take advantage of the “help” feature of each site. The important thing to control is who can see your posts, and this can generally be set both globally or individually for each post. In general, unless you only post things like muffin recipes, you’re probably best off limiting general viewership of your feed only to those whom you’ve accepted as “friends.”
Of course a social media friend is quite often not an actual friend with whom you want to share everything, so you’ll want to take a moment each time you post something to consider exactly whom you’re willing to share it with. And don’t limit your consideration to just the present. Think about who might be looking at it in the future. If you make something public now, it’s going to stay that way for a long time.
Of course, you’re not the only one who can post intimate details about yourself. Often others might post pictures of that wild party you attended, and if they tag you, it can be seen not just by your friends, but by theirs as well. On Facebook, this can be avoided by requiring your approval before any post is tagged with your name. You can also un-tag yourself if anything slips through the cracks.
It can be especially important to control what friends post about you on a site like Linkedin. If all of your friends decide to “endorse” you for your skills in “Drunkology,” future employers most likely won’t be amused.
Finally, Facebook and other sites can often be very persistent in prodding you to provide endless details about your life. How much you share with them is completely up to you, though. If you don’t particularly want everyone to know every place you’ve ever lived, your entire work history, your extended family tree, and the exact, up-to-date nature of your relationship status, don’t share it. It’s as simple as that.
Of course, often what you post online is specifically intended for public consumption. Youtube channels, blogs, Twitter Feeds, and similar content are generally created in the hopes that droves of strangers will find and eagerly follow every post. Whether successful or not, however, there can be both an upside and a downside to such self-expression.
Let’s assume you publish a politically oriented blog. You hold strong opinions on one or the other end of the political spectrum, and you’re not afraid to share them. If you’re applying to university, such an exploit might be a positive indication of your passion for and knowledge of the current political situation, especially if your posts are of high quality or if you’ve amassed a sizeable online following.
That same blog, however, can be a negative to some prospective employers. And though you may rightly say that, if an employer disqualifies you for your political views, you don’t want to work for them anyway, the truth is that you’re as likely as not to find an employer who disagrees with you. They won’t likely cite your views as a reason, but it’s going to color their opinion. You might also choose to apply for a position in government or the press that requires you to maintain at least the public appearance of neutrality, in which case your blog would disqualify you straight away.
To avoid just such possible downsides without giving up your right to express yourself altogether, you might consider not using your real name as your online identity. With the simple use of an anonymous username, you can choose to whom you reveal your identity and preserve any future opportunities that might otherwise be endangered by the wrong person googling your name.
But it’s not just your viewpoint that can wind up causing you problems. What if you’re an amateur writer or visual artist or purveyor of any number of other creative exploits? In this case, you not only open yourself up to judgement based upon your point of view, you can also count on being judged on the perceived quality of your work.
In other words, if an employer or university are on the fence as to whether to choose you over the hundreds or thousands of other candidates, your gag-inducing poetry may be all it takes to push them in the wrong direction.
To avoid such judgement, you could try to laugh off the questionable quality of your work and present it as purely a hobby. Or, as above, you could simply publish such efforts under a pseudonym.
Big Internet/Small World
It’s easy to look at the immense size of the internet (or even just of Facebook alone) and think, “What are the odds of anyone seeing this post?”
It’s also easy to look at what happens when you Google your name and think, “The age of privacy is dead.”
The truth is, in a world of endless information, anyone who wants to find you will find you unless you take measures to control your online presence. There are ways to maintain your privacy without “going off the grid,” but it’s your job learn how. You can’t just dive into the online world and count on people only paying attention to what you want them to see. But with a little effort and due diligence you can close the blinds on the window into your online life and only open the door to those who are welcome inside.