Lessons in online reputation protection: Or, “think before you post”

The Internet has been a huge boon for the world, allowing people from different cultures and countries to communicate and share ideas, providing tools for businesses and users to increase their efficiencies and effectiveness… and it has also given us the perfect medium for us to embarrass ourselves and ruin our careers.

I am referring, of course, to those many instances where people “drunk-blog”, or when they – or, in many instances, their friends – post indiscrete information or photos that aren’t terribly flattering. Many of this comes from someone saying things like “Hey, watch this!” but more often than not it just resulted in someone not thinking ahead and living (and posting) “in the moment”. We all live for the moment to some extent or another, and we often forget that the Internet is public – even Facebook can be exposed to the entire world if your security settings aren’t configured to prevent it.

Here’s some helpful hints that I have identified that will provide what I call “Online Reputation Protection” insurance. Of course, all coverage is subject to change, depending on any pre-existing conditions you may have.

(Many of these hints are obvious, at least to me, and you may read some of the following and go “Duh!” Well, that’s fine – this post is not for you, it’s for those poor unfortunate souls who don’t think before they act. So if I can help one person by posting this, then I’ve done them – and the Internet – a service.)

The Internet isn’t forever – but it’s close

Yes, Twitter is not infinitely searchable, and Facebook and Myspace doesn’t store everything you post on it… but don’t underestimate the power of search engines. Sites like Google cache, well, EVERYTHING… and they have millions of dollars to throw at servers to store those caches for a long long time. And those social sites you publish on can change their terms and conditions at any time, making what you wrote “just between friends” public to the world at large.

So, when it comes to posting stuff on your favorite social networking site… don’t post something you could regret later.

Potential employers user Google

One of the first things that employers and recruiters do (in addition to the traditional background checks, such as references and credit history) is google your name. If you have no real online activity, you’re good to go (though if you’ve applied for a tech job the employer may wonder why you don’t have any online “presence”). If you do have a blog, a twitter account, etc. then they will potentially see everything you have ever posted online, ever. So, like the old saying, don’t post something online that you wouldn’t want your mother to see (or know) – it may cost you a potential job.

Politics and religion are touchy, touchy things

Yes, you may be passionate about what you believe in. Absolutely, you can use your website or Twitter account or Facebook to promote your views and causes. However, remember that in the heat of the moment you may say or do something that might come back and bite you where the sun don’t shine. Take this example, for… example. You see a passionate person that posted his political opinion online in the heat of the moment… and he’s now, well, screwed. Don’t let this happen to you. Moderate your online opinions – even if you’re passionate, don’t go nuts. And if you go “all out,” don’t be surprised if there are repercussions in the real world… cause there often is.

Cursing is allowed… to a point

We all use “salty language” from time to time – we aren’t perfect. But there are still certain words that our culture finds… well, verboten. One starts with the letter “n” and the other starts with the letter “c.” Now, in the proper editorial context, one can use both words with very little consequences – in a quote, for example, or an etymological study of a word’s origin. Any other situation, though… be careful. Especially if you are using either word online to refer to an ex-girl friend or boyfriend.

A picture is worth a thousand firings

Don’t have to worry about getting a job, cause you already have one? Well, this article is a good overview of several cases when users posted photos – or did something online – which resulted in them losing their jobs. And in this economy, that’s not a good thing – especially when you have to explain to potential employers why you lost your previous position. “

On several instances a photo that someone has posted has resulted in someone being fired – especially if the photo showed that the person who “called in sick” was actually at a Halloween party – like in this instance.

A quick sidebar – Halloween is an especially dangerous time of year when it comes to potential impacts to your online reputation. Copious alcohol plus skimpy costumes, add in a dash of camera phones and ubiquitous internet access… well, you can see what can happen.

You also have to worry about old photos of you that other people post online, from years back. Photos that can make you look like a real dweeb. Like, umm… this one.

We don’t have editors – and we all need them

What I find so interesting about the Internet is it give users the opportunity to throw out a thought or a video almost instantly. And because the number of steps between the thought and the publication of the thought is so low, we just throw our thoughts out there… without thinking. And sometimes, there is no “undo.”

In the heat of the moment so many people forget that expression and information is available to anyone who uses a browser and has an Internet connection. We don’t have editors, so dedicate a part of your mind to help you focus on “self-editing.”

The life… and career… that you save, may be your own.

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Joseph Dickerson

Joseph Dickerson is a user experience professional based out of Atlanta, GA. He has implemented processes in user testing, design and ethnographic research and provided design and consulting services for many different projects and organizations.

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