Everyone’s connected—online, that is. The openness and easy availability that became possible with the advent of the Internet has now swept the web landscape by storm. With the introduction of social networking sites, this visibility and accessibility can be both a blessing and a curse. On the upside, it lets you connect with old friends you’d lost touch with and keeps you updated on the adventures (and misadventures) of your friends and family. On the downside, it means there’s a lot of information floating around out there that you may not want prying eyes to see. This is especially true if you run your own business or are trying to find a job.
Maintaining an untarnished reputation is a little more difficult online, where incriminating words and photos can remain posted indefinitely. Just because you no longer check your MySpace account, don’t think that nobody else does. Here are four things you can do to clean up your online image and take control of who you are on the Internet.
Find yourself online and assess the information available. The simplest way to do this? Google yourself by typing your name into the search field in Google.com. We know you’ve done it at least once (an appropriate name—the vanity search—has even been coined for this). Don’t just search for your “official” name, though. Google all variations and common misspellings. If you have a common name, this may mean going through a lot of stuff that has nothing to do with you before you find the stuff that is about you—but the good news is that prospective clients or employers will have to sort through that too. You may also want to try sites like Googlism or Spock to see if your name shows up or do a “deep web” search. Make sure to check if your social network is hurting or helping your online reputation. If you don’t want your name to appear on websites or if you find content about yourself which you want to have taken down, checkout Online Tech Tips’ article on how to remove your name from search engines. Why is this important? You may find that prospective employers or clients will do an online search on your name before they make the decision of whether or not you are someone they will want to work with.
Create and market your online identity. The best way to control what people see and learn about you is to put it online yourself. Get your name and website indexed in popular search engines like Google, MSN or Bing, and Yahoo!. Streamline your social network profiles so they all reflect the online personality you want to show the world when people you know—and don’t know—search for your name. Clean up your online image by doing damage control on your social networking profiles. You can get rid of negative information about you by approaching anyone you know who has posted things you would rather have removed or by editing your own sites and online profiles. If you run a company you may want to hire reputation management services like Zallas Technologies or Defend My Name.
Set up a pseudonym or post anonymous content. If you have things to say or participate in online activities that you may want to keep separate from your “official” online identity, you may want to do so via an alias or handle or via anonymous posting. This applies for blogs, online gaming, and so on. However, you may have to do a lot of Googling to make sure your pseudonym isn’t publicly linked to your real name or any other aspect of your life. For more tips on blogging anonymously, check out the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s article on how to blog safely or TechSoup’s technical guide to anonymous blogging. If you just want a venue for ranting, you may want to try services like FearlessBlogging.com.
Manage the privacy settings on your social networking profiles. Social networks are God’s gift to stalkers and deviants everywhere. People post major life events on these networks, and sometimes their entire personal histories are shown via text, photo, and video narration. While it’s fun and convenient to share this information with friends and family, the truth is that once you put the information online, it becomes accessible to anyone with the right skills and determination. Privacy settings don’t guarantee the safety of the information stored in your accounts in social and professional networking sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, Multiply, Twitter, and so on. But they do ensure that, barring hackers (who are generally strong believers of the “when there’s a will, there’s a way” mentality) and subpoenas, you will have some measure of control over who gets to see what you post and who doesn’t. Not sure how to calibrate your online social networks’ privacy settings or what their privacy policies are? Check out these articles:
Facebook Help Center: Privacy
10 Privacy settings every Facebook user should know
Recommended privacy settings for Facebook
Facebook Fail: How to use Facebook privacy settings and avoid disaster
Settings and personalization
LinkedIn privacy settings: what you need to know
A closer look at LinkedIn privacy
How to tweak LinkedIn’s privacy settings to avoid spam
How to configure privacy settings
How to make your site private
Account privacy settings
How to set your profile to private
How to protect your privacy on Twitter
For information on privacy policies, settings, and other issues for these and other networking sites, go to the help sections on your social networking sites or do some more searching online—you never know what you might find.