I’m a big fan of the idea of online identities. Like it or not, our internet activities leave a trail that is intrinsically linked with our real world identities. Without buying into the hysteria of bloggers or facebook users being fired because of something they wrote on the internet (and it does happen), the tools to asses someones online identity exist and are easy to use. Its called a search engine.
So what can contribute to your online identity? Well anything you do on the internet under your own name or some simple variation thereof. For example: Facebook, Amazon (wishlist, product reviews), forums or file sharing sites, Twitter, FriendFeed, personal websites. The list is endless. With a little care and attention to detail, it is possible to control the information available about you on the internet to the casual searcher. The question may well be why should you bother?
Have a look at this article on Science Careers about employers searching the internet for job candidates information (H/T Lou @ A Scientist’s Life). 41% of hiring managers from the UK that were interviewed for this survey say that information they’ve found online has lead to potential candidates being disqualified from a job search. There is no reason to think that this number will get any smaller in the future as more and more things happen online. And if you’re not searching for a job, think of the impact on your current job or studies. If you’ve added coworkers or line managers as friends on social networking sites, you’ve invited them into your community and allowed them to see what ever you post. It starts when you’re a student: when you complain about classes or something a lecturer has done, it seems a little naive to do so in a forum such as Facebook where you’ve invited that lecturer to be your friend, where your lecturer can see it. While it may not be a big deal to vent or blow off steam on the internet while you’re an undergrad, what happens if you do it in a job? The answer is simply unpredictable, but I would assume that it would not have a good outcome on your career.
I’m not trying to scare people, but privacy settings exist for a reason.
So what can you do to sort out your online identity?
1. Learn about privacy settings for the websites you use. Use them to protect yourself. Remember that what passes as fun conversation between you and your friends, may be viewed as offensive or immature to a potential boss. And not everyone needs to see the drunk showing off your underwear photos.
2. Consider using a pseudonym. Do you really need to contribute to that forum as the ‘real you’? Does your photosharing website have to identify everyone in each picture by their full name? It doesn’t take much to divorce much of your internet activity from a search for your full name.
3. Consider the implications for other people of the things you put on the net. If you upload photos of your friends, are they OK with the fact that you’ve identified them?
4. Moderate what other people are writing to you. If you read the Science Careers article, you’ll see that comments written by friends, family and colleagues of job candidates have been thought of as reasons to remove someone from an interview list. Yes, they’re saying that how other people interact with you online may affect your chances at a job. You can ask people to revise their comments, or delete them in most contexts. You can also diffuse conflict rather than exacerbating it.
It isn’t about stopping people enjoying the internet, social networking or any of the activities available. Its just about not letting those activities interfere with real life.
You could try calculating your online identity using this excellent calculator. I’m digitally distinct – i.e. the first 3 pages of Google hits for my full name are things mainly about me, and things that I’m happy for people to read about me.