controlling your public appearance
In the last month, I’ve received almost a dozen panicked emails from people who had commented on my blog at one point or another and were horrified to find that their comment was at the top of Google’s search for their name. In each case, I have respectfully altered the comment to an anonymous name. I prefer not to remove these comments because this leaves holes in my blog, especially when others’ comments are based on those earlier comments. Unfortunately, most of these people do not understand how Google’s cache works and write back in rage that it’s not fixed. I politely try to inform them that Google’s cache can take months to update and I cannot do anything to speed this up.
When people bitch about MySpace and Facebook being walled gardens, one of the positive things that I offer in return is, “at least those teens’ profiles aren’t in Google’s cache.” With Facebook’s opt-out decision, this is no longer the case. As I mentioned yesterday, I’m a bit terrified of what this might mean long-term.
As a teenager, I was petrified of my mother finding my Usenet posts. It’s not that I said much on Usenet that would’ve upset her (although the Bad Religion tirades are a wee bit embarrassing), but I didn’t want her to see my political or topical commentaries. (Sidenote: I left the sexuality exploration discussions for IRC which ::crossing fingers:: weren’t recorded.) I used various handles, most of which are not findable by anyone other than my brother (and even he can’t find all of them). That’s not to say that there’s not a lot of embarrassing material online – I’ve been blogging for over ten years and I’ve definitely posted things that would be drudged up if I were to run for office.
The best thing about being an active blogger is that stuff gets buried by repetitive blogging. My new stuff goes to the top of the search engines, my old stuff fades away. And we have a name for anyone who goes out of their way to find that old stuff: stalker. And we don’t really wanna work for, date, or befriend genuine stalkers. If it’s public, but not easy to find, it’s creepy that you went out of your way to find it. (I’m fascinated by the creeps… and journalists… who go through courthouses and other public records places to drudge up tax records, legal motions, housing details, etc. It’s all public, but c’mon now…)
We’ve all heard that privacy is dead, but you can still control your public appearance and it’s really critical that you start doing so. Don’t whimper about how Google is destroying your reputation. Take control!
So here are some suggestions, for adults and teenagers:
- Create a public Internet identity. I strongly recommend blogging, but even a homepage will do. Have a genuine all-accessible identity online that you’re cool with grandma and your boss reading. Don’t make it uber drab, but do provide context for who you are, what you do, what you’re passionate about, etc. Think of it as a digital body and dress it up as if it were going into a job interview. Blogging is especially good because you can keep updating your identity over time in a way that shows that you think. It’s much easier to get a sense of someone through their commentary on public affairs or life around them than through a static page.
- Say NO! to Facebook’s public search option. Click “privacy” – “search.” Under “Who can find my public search listing outside of Facebook?” uncheck both boxes. Be proactive about this. You might not think you care now, but having your Facebook profile at the top of a search for your name might not be what you want when you’re looking for a job.
- Expect unexpected audiences. Your profile on Facebook and MySpace might be “private” but when you join the Los Angeles Network or when you accept someone who knows someone, you might find that the audience viewing your profile is not who you expected. Are you prepared for this? Make sure that profile says what you want it to say, even to those you don’t expect. If you want to be a porn diva and make it in Hollywood, put up that slutty photo, but if you want to be a lawyer, you might regret that photo a few years from now. Of course, I’m sure there are porn stars who later became lawyers, just like there are actors who became governors.
- Write blog comments as though you’re writing your own blog. The more popular a blog, the more likely the comments from that blog are to show up high on Google’s lists. If you write inflammatory shit on those blogs just to piss people off, it will come back to haunt you. (It depresses me that a huge chunk of the comments on BoingBoing’s new comment system are extremely negative.) Personally, I don’t think that you should be anonymous on a blog. I think that you should stand by your name, but write articulately. And blog on your own blog so that the comments are not at the top.
- Treat video and audio just like text. Right now, video and audio aren’t searchable, but they will be. Don’t think that you can say or do anything you want on a video and it will never come up. That Neo-Nazi video you made and put up on YouTube cuz you thought it was funny will eventually be searchable and associated with your name. Are you really ready for that to appear at the top of a Google ego search?
(If you have other suggestions, add them to the comments.)
But above all else, seriously, create a public Internet identity, maintain it, link to it, build it, love it, hug it, and call it George. I can’t tell you how important this is. I used to say that a LinkedIn profile would do, but now that they’re so locked down to people who don’t pay, they don’t provide that value any more. If you don’t want to go through the hassle of registering a domain and figuring out HTML, just make a Blogspot account and make the Title your name. But keep it up-to-date so that when people want to look up who you are, they’re going to see that page and go, “wow, she’s really interesting.”
Yesterday, I was talking about this uber smart college frosh to one of my colleagues. His name is about as generic as it gets and he shares it with a few celebs – “Sam Jackson” – so I wasn’t expecting much when I threw his name into Google. Much to my pleasure, his college blog comes up as #4 on Google. Here is a newly minted college freshman who put together a blog about applying to college when he was in high school, has commented on others’ blogs in an articulate and engaging manner, and is genuinely actively engaged in thinking about the world around him. He’s attracted the attention of all sorts of folks and I have no doubt that people who wish to hire him (or admit him) have looked at this blog to get a sense of who he is. He makes it clear that he understands this medium and how to present himself accordingly. Hell, I intend to hire him precisely because he gets it.
Carefully crafting and cautiously managing one’s public image is a critical aspect of living in a mediated public world. Every advice column I’ve read warns people of the dangers of living online. I think that this is idiotic. People need to embrace the world we live in and learn to work within its framework. Don’t panic about being public – embrace it and handle it with elegance.
[PS: I've said a lot of this before in the Harvard Business Review.]