You Online, The Forever Footprint

When I wrote, “That Awkward Personal Branding”, I referenced the bright side of an online persona.  The way it can work to your advantage if you are honest and polite. Being present online can get you a new job, an informal or formal education, a new profession; it can introduce you to interesting and bright people.  What was not explored was that sometimes there is a downside to being online or at least that some caution is required. I had a different post lined up for this week, but then I had some interesting conversations and when I ran across the video above, I decided to write this post instead. The TED video provides some brilliant insight on the reality of our online lives and I thought I should share it and some of my own perceptions.

I grew up in a large and extended West Indian family and it always struck me as uncanny how my aunts in Montreal could know what my cousins in Barbados were doing at any given time and vice versa. The family grapevine was fast, effective and efficient.  You couldn’t blink without it being recorded, shared and discussed. It was therefore always a bit of a challenge to me to try to operate under the radar. Doing something, anything, and keeping it a secret was an accomplishment. It’s not that I was doing anything nefarious, questionable or even interesting.  It’s simply that when it seems as if every waking moment of your life is constantly being transmitted through the world’s most well-organized grapevine, you learn to appreciate privacy.

Given that background, you can imagine that when Facebook first emerged, it gave me nothing less than the creeps.  It felt very much like a self-inflicted Big Brother scenario. Why would anyone want everyone  knowing their activities? I watched with some amazement as people I knew and respected posted pictures and particulars about things that would have been better kept discreet or at least offline.  In a professional capacity, I have quietly scooped up and destroyed compromising photos of colleagues that would have devastated even the best careers. I have cringed when friends have posted highly political commentary and have blasted my son on more than one occasion for inappropriate posts from him and his friends.

So having said that, why would I ever encourage anyone to be online or promote themselves online?  The answer is that social media is a reality.  It’s not going to fade away and become a distant memory.  For good or bad, it’s part of our culture and imbedded in the way we communicate, so use it. Engage but be strategic about it.  If you were remembered for one thing, would you want that comment you recently made on Facebook or LinkedIn to be it? Would you be all right sharing your online comments with your boss, your mother or religious leader?  If the answer is no, then you may want to rethink what you post. Your digital trail is forever, so make each forever footprint with care.

Generational differences mean that my children and even those ten or fifteen years younger than me are comfortable posting things I wouldn’t dream of sharing.  When you grow up in the shadow of Facebook and the internet, your perception of what is private is very narrow, but it shouldn’t be taken for granted. Provocative language, heavily loaded double entendres and sexually suggestive witticisms are brilliant repartee at the dinner party table, but not necessarily, what you want to put out there for potential employers or clients. Most of the cues that are present in real life exchanges are missing online.  The sarcastic tone, the raised eyebrow or the knowing smirk that put a different meaning on words are all absent in online exchanges. You never assume in communications.  You always act with the expectation that your audience will need specificity, transparency and information.  If you know that the majority of messages are delivered through non-verbal cues, then you understand that when you engage online you are always communicating at a disadvantage.  In this setting clarity becomes king.

A very smart businessperson recently asked me, “Would you rather be on record online as a new Plato, Cicero or Voltaire or a Dr. Ruth or Pamela Anderson?”

While I don’t expect to reach the intellectual heights of the first three, reason, if not experience, would have me avoid the pitfalls of the last two. Dr. Ruth for the focus of her conversation and Pamela for her illustration of the same. I have other ideas to explore. To that end, I would encourage caution when managing your online persona. Engage and be present, post and share your ideas.  Take advantage of the benefits that online life has to offer, and there are many, but always ask yourself, would I be comfortable with everyone in my life seeing what I wrote and is this how I want to be remembered?

About Debra Yearwood

Experienced communications and public relations executive who manages challenges with an eye on outcomes and a sense of humour. Learn more about how I think at https://commstorm.com/ Learn more about my experience at ca.linkedin.com/in/debrayearwood/
This entry was posted in Communications, Management, public relations, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

53 Responses to You Online, The Forever Footprint

  1. becc03 says:

    I too was very wary of Facebook and had vowed never to join, but it was a necessity when I started my blog. In both respects, I write as if my mother, in-laws, family and children will be reading it. I expose some very personal things, but only if I think there is something valuable in it. I am a very open and honest person anyway, so I may share more than someone else, but then again having read thousands of blogs, I think I am very guarded too.
    I would like to think that I will always be proud of my work and interactions. I hope I continue to feel that as my blog continues to grow.

    • I really like your description of the audience you are thinking of when you write. What anyone puts out there is very individual. What’s comfortable for one person may not be for another. The trick is to ensure that whatever you write, you’re okay with anyone/everyone seeing it. I’ve been consistently surprised at who reads my blog. I’m not sure what I was thinking would happen,🙂 but it feels like every week someone new tells me they read it or someone else tells me that they still read it.

  2. Terrific post, Debra, as much as I don’t like to have to watch a video when I visit a blog.

    I appreciated what the speaker said about considering our social media presence to be like a tattoo. That is an incredible comparison, as indeed, what we say or how we behave online does form a permanent impression on those in the world around us. Definitely food for thought.

    • Thanks Doreen. When you think about the time and thought most people give to the idea of getting a tattoo and then choosing one that suits them, it really brings home how little time we often give to their digital counterparts.

      P.S. I have mixed emotions about videos, sometimes they add to the conversation, sometimes they are just irritating.🙂

  3. In the past one strategy I used to recommend was keeping personal social online interactions separate from professional ones, but even that may not work anymore. Anything you post anywhere can be recorded and tracked back to you, and with doxxing becoming a more popular hobby it’s best to leave all private matters exactly that: private. And that means off of all social networking sites.

    • Hadn’t heard the term doxxing before so looked it up. It brings an entirely new level of creepy to the conversation and completely reinforces the argument for restraint online.🙂

  4. Great article. I spend a lot of time on Facebook for my work , not so much personal. Facebook is a tool and like all tools it needs to be used carefully.

  5. Great post! Like you, I cringe at some of the things people post. There is no “delete” button on the Internet and it’s a sobering thought. Thank you.

    • Thanks Lindsay. If we could create a delete button for the internet and a rewind button for life we’d all be happier. Well, we really only need a pause button for both.🙂

  6. Debra, you are an amazing communicator. I love your posts. this subject hits close to home for me. You know I like to focus on personal branding for a sales person and one thing I focus on is your online “footprint”. I’ve experienced the same thing,friends or family posting risque photos or comments, often with bad results. It makes me cringe. Personally I don’t understand why people don’t understand that this stuff is “forever”. As long as the internet is alive those posts, comments, pictures will forever be present. In addition, they will be the property of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Tumbler, etc…according to their terms of use.

    • Thank you. You make a great point. Its tough enough to manage when we make mistakes online. We hope that we have the ability to correct them, but when push comes to shove, once we post our images and ideas, they are no longer ours to control. The various platforms out there offer tremendous opportunity, but the risk is all ours.

  7. I’m glad you wrote about this Debra, this topic is so important! Another to consider: what about what OTHERS write about us? How can we manage this? When I first started job hunting after college I googled myself, and, much to my dismay, found that a fellow student in one of my journalism classes had written a fictional blog article about me assaulting a professor with a banana! While the article was clearly a fake you never know what others will think. I was mortified! Luckily I was able to contact him and he took it down, but I always wonder if it’s still somewhere out there in cyberspace.

    • Great point! I will freely admit that I periodically Google myself to see what’s out there. Imagine my surprise a few years ago when I read that I had been arrested in the U.S. for embezzlement from the U.S. federal government. Obviously someone with the same name was involved, but finding that article gave me pause. I had worked for the federal government in Canada, what if one of my clients came across that article or a future employer and didn’t realize it wasn’t me? It made it imperative that I establish my own identity online that I controlled. If you follow the link to the article from “Blue Sky Resumes” at the bottom of my post, they offer some useful tips for managing your profile online when things go wrong. As it happens, the way you managed the post from your old classmate is one of the methods they recommend.

  8. My view is and has always been don’t do anything online you don’t want anyone and everyone to know about.

  9. I approach this from a different direction than many others would have to. Because of the areas I work in photos that I show are a part of the job. Where other people would have to find ways to hide those photos or not show them at all. The real trick with much of what I do is finding ways to showcase responsible drinking as opposed to out right drunkenness.

    This line becomes more difficult when confronted by those who see no distinction between responsibly enjoying a beverage as an adult and drinking for the sake of getting sloppy. Recently there was a huge hulla-bulloo about the mayor of Grand Rapids having a celebratory pint with other city officials when welcoming a new pub into the city (or some other such occasion). There were a few people who derided him for being a bad example for children.

    The number of people who came to his defense was gratifying. The man was clearly an adult over the age of 21 and it was only a harmless toast. It wasn’t a picture of him at a frat party, sloppy drunk, doing a beer bong.

    It is important to remember that you can’t control what people think of what you post. But you can control what you post.

    • I’ll be honest and say I do not like even family photos of me taken if I am holding a wine glass. My nieces and nephew are all proficient on Facebook, not to mention the rest of my family, so I know a post will follow. I am hesitant precisely because people can have such unanticipated reactions to alcohol consumption and an image can easily be misconstrued. Life is short and I don’t want to waste time explaining what was a private moment.

      As someone who writes a great blog on beer, you presumably have to actually drink some of the stuff in order to speak to it.🙂 I will comment on wine or beer blogs and will pin interesting finds in that category to my Pinterest account. I am who I am, what I worry about is avoidable misconceptions. There are so many of them out there already.

      I’m glad to hear that common sense prevailed with the mayor. What’s really ridiculous about the situation is that, not only is he a grown man, but studies have shown that making alcohol into a taboo actually encourages children to be curious about it. It creates a mystique or rite of passage around what should be an informed and educated choice for an adult. The rates for alcoholism in the U.S. are also on a steady decline and have been for several years now. Despite frequent press reports, college students are also drinking less. I believe they are down more than 40% since the early 80s. Policy and regulation around alcohol consumption are rarely related to science. They are usually driven by opinion, which takes me back to why I avoid getting into that messy conversation if I can. Sorry,the sociology major in me took over for a minute.🙂

  10. I find it disturbing that someone notifies a family of a death on Facebook, I mean it is a public forum and death is a personal thing. Next we will have wills on twitter!

  11. Mary Slagel says:

    I love the question the business person recently asked you. I would try to stay clear of being Dr. Ruth as well because she didn’t become famous for her knowledge. She became famous for her knowledge on a particularly private subject she had no problem speaking about. I’m not that person and I try to make sure my pictures don’t speak louder than my words as well.

    • The question stopped me in my tracks and made me really think. Not surprisingly, it came from someone I met online. Great point about the images. It’s so easy to misconstrue a single moment in time, which is precisely what an image is. The context or the events that lead up to the image are often missing and can change what appears to be a dubious image into a heroic one.

  12. StephB says:

    When I decided to pursue my dream of being a sales “personality” and move beyond being a salesperson I was concerned that my opinions on my blog could have an impact, since I knew that I would initially continue working a 9 to 5. What I decided was that in all things I would be honest and have a true representation of my opinions and ideas. If a potential employer reads my blog and freaks out then we probably wouldn’t work out well from a culture fit perspective! What I have found is that my writing has exposed me to opportunities higher up the corporate food chain and led employers to see that I am a critical thinker who is success oriented so while I may not fit as the indian, I’d be a great chief or motivator.

    • I totally agree. Creating an artificial online persona makes absolutely no sense. Sooner or later you have to live in the real world. The fine line that I think we have to watch is related to those issues that are truly personal and those things that are professional or public. Which sports team I support or which management style I prefer are issues that I have no challenge sharing. Its issues that are highly divisive like, religion, sex or politics that have no impact on my professional performance, but by expressing them, can limit my opportunities.

      • StephB says:

        Absolutely agreed. I have both a personal (essay, poetry) blog and professional. If I transferred some of the posts from personal to professional, it could be a dealbreaker. If they find it and spend time on it, they may determine that my private life doesn’t fit the conservative nature of their environment, etc!

  13. JeriWB says:

    My choice to leave the classroom was primarily driven by how judgmental our culture can be of teachers. Any political opinion expressed by a teacher, let alone an English teacher who writes stories with curse words and sex in them, simply leaves the doors wide open for the public to find fault with the teacher who chooses to be active on social media. Now that I don’t have to worry about coming under the attack of parents, I feel free to be myself online.

    • I can appreciate the incredible pressure being a teacher creates for individuals. We often hold teachers up to not just a higher standard, but often an impossible one. Coming from a political background I’m always conscious of being misconstrued or perceived as biased, which means that more often than not, I remain neutral on issues that I might otherwise weigh in on.

  14. Great article here Debra and a really interesting video too.

    I used to be so private about everything that I wouldn’t open a Facebook account for the longest time and didn’t post much when I eventually did. Like you, I cringed (still do) when people posted everything and anything about their views and their lives up there.
    Fast forward a couple of years and I’ve actually had to train myself to be active on social media sites as it’s part of how I earn my living! As an online writer and social media manager I not only create my own ‘digital tattoos’ but create other people’s too. Like you say – there’s no getting away from it and it’s the way things are now. It’s how business is done.

    Thanks for a great article – I really enjoyed it and it’s wonderfully written too.

    • Thank you Kirsty. Like you, I’ve had to force myself to adopt social media. At first my hesitation felt odd given that I am in the communications and relations business, but I would say that our attitude towards it is because of what we do. When you understand the power of words or appreciate what effective communications can accomplish, then its easy to see what a powerful and potentially dangerous tool social media is. Like any powerful tool, it needs to be understood and handled with care.

  15. Ashley F says:

    This is such an interesting topic. Our lives are more and more exposed on the web, and it’s amazing what people can find out about you if you are not careful. So many HR professionals are using Social Media to screen employees, and why not if the information is available. We all need to be so careful, and as you point out the younger generation may find out too late what they have exposed themselves too.

    • I hear the words, “that’s not what I meant” or “he/she was just joking” all the time related to online exchanges. That’s where the trap is. The assumptions that only people who know you will read your posts and that it’s no big deal.

  16. Agree with you completely Debra. Search engines record everything and forget nothing.

    There is a huge difference between what you can say and do in real life and online. As you wrote:

    “Provocative language, heavily loaded double entendres and sexually suggestive witticisms are brilliant repartee at the dinner party table, but not necessarily, what you want to put out there for potential employers or clients. Most of the cues that are present in real life exchanges are missing online. The sarcastic tone, the raised eyebrow or the knowing smirk that put a different meaning on words are all absent in online exchanges.” Far too many people forget this and hence come across in ways that can be fatal for them.

  17. I find it extremely amazing how many “adults” do not conduct themselves in a positive manner on social media sites. I have always been extremely careful about how and what I say online. Once online it is there forever. This post is great.

    Your family sounds like mine. The original social media network.

    • What I find amazing is how many public figures fall into the trap of being inappropriate online. If people who are tuned to being in the public eye can make such startling mistakes, it’s little wonder so many in the broader population do the same.

      You have both my sympathies and congratulations on your family, like social media they have their upside.🙂

  18. Eleanor Bell says:

    Good advice to ask yourself before posting “Am I okay with ANYONE reading this”
    Do not post while you are angry is also good advice🙂

  19. Arleen says:

    Great post and very interesting. The video you chose was riveting and Juan was speaking in such a pleasing voice. I guess it is like, be careful what you wish for. I am still struggling with the idea of social media but it is here to stay and you can’t fight it so join it. Since my blogs relate to my business I am not concerned what we write. Good insight.
    http://www.garrettspecialties.com/blog

    • I have been struggling with social media for years and suspect that I will continue to struggle for many more. It is not a platform but an ever growing and multiplying collection of platforms. What’s popular today may be passe tomorrow and there is always a new and better way to deliver your message. Given all of that, it’s not surprising that we’re having a hard time trying to keep up. 🙂

  20. brohawk92 says:

    Interesting post, Debra! This is something I preach to my teenage sons and their friends. While you may think your conversation is private, you never know who may be watching. For my boys, it may be a potential coach that doesn’t agree with a comment about a player, or how they are talking about a teammate or coach. Everyone evaluates character with every interaction whether it is in person or virtual.

    Thank you for sharing!

    • I worry about what my kids put online all the time and my only consolation is that there are so many of them making the same mistakes that they will end up equalizing the playing field…that’s my optimism talking. The pessimist in me hopes that the technology to eliminate the less prudent posts becomes broadly available sooner, rather than later. In the interim, the tips provided by the “Clean Up Your Online Footprint” article I linked in the post are our best bet.🙂

  21. I so get what you’re saying. With the advent of SM, many employers will search a prospective employee (I did) and sometimes that would seal the deal or seal their fate in regard to a sought after position. Care is always the best approach when posting anything that can be viewed publicly.

    I could tell you a story about one such situation but you don’t have enough room for that, or probably patience to read it…LOL.

    • Every time I think I’ve seen just about every silly move you can make online, someone comes along and adds a new and creative way to embarrass themselves.:) The unfortunate thing is that its not always done in temper, grief or other heated emotional moments. Often its just a matter of letting things slide until what was mildly amusing becomes inappropriate.

  22. The younger generation are leading the way on social media, in both folly and wisdom. It’s hard to know how much is private – I don’t post anything that I wouldn’t feel comfortable saying to someone’s face. That goes for all the platforms!

    • Agree, Facebook is a common site for awkward online moments, but it in no way owns the market on it. Being the biggest site and coming from a personal networking perspective it’s simply means there’s lots of room for people to venture into strange territory.

  23. Karen says:

    I agree! I never had a Facebook account until I started my blog. Sometimes I cringe at what some friends post. I try to keep my personal account simple…just pictures of my daughter that I share with close friends and family. You never realize that future employers can Google all of your posts!

    • I’ve felt the same way looking at posts. Social media represents such a dramatic shift in the evolution of human communications that I think it will be a long time yet before we fully appreciate the impact it is having on our cultures. Unlike television, radio and newspapers, social media moves fast and is accessible to so many more people.

  24. Laurel says:

    Good article Debra. You have got me thinking about the ‘abuse” of the communication vehicle of social media. I have witnessed too many people, young and old, use Facebook as a platform to continue what should be a private face to face conversation. I have read all about the after break up rants, tears, begging….”how could I have loved you so much and now I hate you and I am going to tell your friends about XXX”….I have read about custody battles going off the rails and what horrible parents my friends really are…..I have read online when a girlfriend has decided to leave her husband because she met an old flame and wanted to rekindled what once was. She told her Facebook audience before she told her husband.These are all conversations that need to happen in private with the person involved and not the rest of the world. Its not just future employers who need not know every aspect of a potential candidates personal life, its also the people who are close to the author. Your friends, professional colleagues and children really do not want/need to read about any body’s intimate personal life. There should almost be rules on emotional, hateful and morally tricky posts.

    • Very good points Laurel. I have heard about people notifying immediate family members about the death of a loved one via Facebook. Not only is it disrespectful to the intended recipients but it belittles the experiences shared. In this instance Marshall McLuhan remains accurate with his statement, “The medium is the message.”

  25. Simone Hart says:

    What and how you communicate on Facebook and other social medias does need to be considered seriously. The content and the presentation in the form of grammar, spelling and any accompanying graphics, should leave a good impression.
    Some things should not be shared, for example when you are going away. Too easy for the wrong people to find that out and break into your home.
    Good article as usual. I look forward to reading them.

    • Thanks Simone. Good points about the broader personal implications on posting too much information and the impact of bad grammar. One of my favorite video blogs (introduced to me by my kids), is called, “Your Grammar Sucks”. As the rather blunt name implies, it delivers humorous readings from real, poorly written, spelt and conceived posts from around the internet. What appeals to me most is that it gives my kids a warning about about how foolish they can look if they are not careful with what they say online. My daughter has even submitted a badly written post she found online.🙂

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