Mind Your Web Presence

October 22, 2008

"Mind your web presence," said my former boss and mentor Gilles Vandelle. We were discussing the kinds of hits we get when we do web searches on people. Gilles, who specializes in search technologies, showed me some of the things he found about me. Results focused mostly on my photographs, some friends' website links, and miscellaneous contributions to journalism and charitable efforts. This made me think: What can one do to mind his/her own web presence?

These days, we're eager to join social networks and explode upon the online scene with all extroverted bravado. Says Brett J. Trout in the book Cyber Law,

"Often, when we feel youthful and reckless and full of joy, we post questionable material on social networking cites [sic]— foolishly not anticipating that we may wish to adopt a more conservative persona once we enter the job market, start our own business, or get married...You can always become more social online, but you can never become more conservative."

It's just like the classic argument about privacy. "I've got nothing to hide." (I have a nice future post in store for that topic.) People post freely to personal blogs, to image-sharing sites, to social networking sites, and deeply identify with these transient moments. But what they fail to realize is that, like that angry email sent before counting to ten, once it's posted it's there. Forever.

Oh sure, one could always "take it down", hit the delete button. But that does not guarantee that stuff left up there for the briefest time was not cached, archived, or put in the way-back machine. (I won't get into the data-mining potential, and likely practice, of social networking startups.) You've probably heard it before. It is not uncommon for recruiters, interviewers, even friends and coworkers to do a little "social site stalking" and find what you've posted about yourself or what search engines say about you.

There are different web presences you must carefully maintain. There's the professional side. If you're like me and want to contribute to the online community, you'll probably have a blog of some sort to share your professional dialogues, discoveries and insights. Here are a few tips for maintaining that side:

  • Do not blog too much about work-specific stuff, especially if it sucks. Unless your organization specifically encourages it and you have a written endorsement, leave work talk to the water cooler. It's just too much of a get-fired minefield.
  • "Professional" web presence means conduct yourself in a presentable, positive manner. Ranting, vulgarity, venting, it only serves as an indicator of your lack of self-restraint. I'm sure others (e.g. other professionals who might consider partnering with you) would loooove that!
  • Some bloggers say keep it racy, be controversial. There are ways to express your contentious opinion without resorting to vulgarity, libel, personal attacks, and negativity.

Think strategically about your posts. How do they contribute to your web presence, and the web community as a whole?

Likewise, there is the personal web presence. That side of you that professes you like kittens, drunken all-night clubbing, crochet, and Celine Dion. If you have the passion to share this side of yourself consider:

  • Are there lock-down mechanisms for your sharing medium (e.g. "Friends-only view", or registration/password protections to restrict accessing your special personal content)?
  • Is there info there that could be used (in aggregate, like, over time) to profile you or be a source for identity theft?
  • Do you want people (or companies) you don't know storing this info (your wild images and heartfelt soliloquies) for their own context-lacking judgment and categorization?

Don't get me wrong. I'm all for sharing thoughts online, connecting with people through social networking sites, showing others the world through your lens... Professionally it can be a boon; and personally it can be extremely therapeutic and connecting. But part of security and privacy is being mindful of what you put out there, putting yourself in another's shoes. You are your own PR rep. Think beyond the moment.

Another way to go about it, especially if you're too deep into the "oops, that may have been inappropriate" side of things, is to get professional assistance managing your Internet reputation. One web-based service called ReputationDefender (no, they're not paying me to write this) works on your behalf to keep your web presence respectable. There are lots of other services, but this one seems to be the most vetted. If you subscribe to their service, agents see what can be dug up, give you reports, and tools to manage your online presence. They even provide remediation solutions for negative findings. (Removal of bad stuff has an additional cost per incident.)

Also, it's good to see what people see. Instead of periodically searching on yourself, try Google Alerts. This is a nifty Google feature that lets you know whenever your search criteria return new results. Set queries up for your name or content or sites, and you'll get daily notifications if something new pops up. (If you're unlucky enough to have a very common name, you might want to restrict alerts to your intellectual property and your websites.) Google Webmaster Tools also provides ways to manage your website's search results.

You went public when you started posting on the Internet. Learn how to manage your presence effectively, and act with awareness. And if you're going to share, might as well do it a lot. Flood the net with lots and lots of [good] content to give the would-be searcher a run for their money.