My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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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.]

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34 comments to controlling your public appearance

  • I’m just bummed how deep I am in search results for my first name. I used to be on the first page!

  • Dumb question – away from something like co-comment how would you search for a person’s comment history?

  • Kat Walsh

    I agree with this post. I just wish it were easier to make clear that the other people who share my name, and are roughly the same age to boot, aren’t me! (For example, there’s one who was all over the news for talking about how easy it was to buy alcohol as a minor online… and one who writes poetry I don’t particularly like.)

  • Don’t your first and second bullets contradict each other? For some, Facebook is a reasonable public identity.

    I’m no FB-lover, but I’ve kept the default public search b/c I’m happy to have people look at my profile. I just make sure that everything on the page is ok for everybody to see — stupid comments from meathead friends get deleted.

  • Soledad

    I usually have no problem with letting others see my Facebook profile, but your post scared me out!!! I have already disabled the search engine options. :-))

    regards,

    Soledad

  • Some great points for people to develop their online reputation. they also need to be aware that the status lines from Facebook end up on google very quickly at the moment, even if the profile is not searchable. Twitter, Pownce and other micro-blogs also get high in the ratings. Using a different identities on these should be considered.

  • epc

    Assume that anything that is digital can be and will become public, whether or not that’s your intent, whether or not it’s technically feasible when you created it. None of us could have expected (though I guess it could be predicted) that Google would have Usenet archives from the 1980s available when we were posting to alt.whatever.

  • danah — my recent proposal is Search Engine Orientation (or SEOr, SEO for Ordinary people). My suggestion is that Google put a lot more work into directing people to help (than the current “webmaster guidelines”– do “ordinary folks” even know to go search for SEO?) and the SEO community start talking about SEOr as a plain reputation-defending technique, not an optimization game.

    And I agree with Rick here. Granted that having a profile on Facebook (or LinkedIn, Friendster) is a *much* easier way of guaranteeing your ranking. Commenting on blogs is not as helpful, particularly because of NOFOLLOW.

    Jon

  • Great advice. We are willingly putting our information out there in public and need more recognition of what that means and how to act responsibly.

    I’d like to add that anyone with a Google account has the option of whether they keep a record of (some) of your activity or all of it. In your account options it is called History. Having the account means that you’ve accepted a permanent cookie that doesn’t expire for 30 years, however you can delete it (Google will just replace it next time you go there), and you can also separate your usage under it from usage on different computers, browsers, etc.

    We give our consent to being tracked and having our data captured when we use these services and put stuff out there. The important thing is that we become more aware of this and therefore more able to make informed choices.

    I said NO to Facebook entirely because my full birthday is not something I’m willing to put out there in someone else’s control. It’s too close to my driver’s license, social insurance number, etc.

    Vera

  • Steve

    I first posted on usenet in the early nineties, shortly before the outbreak of Desert Storm. If I hadn’t known that I was posting for the whole world to see, I surely figured it out when my first post to the test newsgroup yielded a reply from an autoresponder located somewhere in the Middle East.

    I was a serious poster in politically oriented newsgroups, and I posted under my full name. I made it a point never to post anything that I didn’t consider defensible, even to those who might disagree with the particular positions I took.

    As the Internet has evolved, and I have evolved, I have occasionally posted things I wouldn’t want employers or co-workers to see. Those I always post under a synthetic identity.

    My comments on a blog like this are a gray area. I post here using my first name only, primarily because my first and last names are approximately identical to another fellow who is quite well known as one of the guys who, unlike Al Gore, really did help invent the Internet. Rather than inserting a disclaimer that I’m not him, or using my middle initial, I just post as “Steve”.

    And, I feel I should repeat what I’ve said here before. The notion that anyone would post on a publicly accessible SNS, a blog, or a website under their own name and not expect their words to be seen by strangers or unwanted acquaintances seems bizarre to me. I guess I have to accept that young kids come up not knowing much of what adults take for granted – but still.

    And as to whether looking up past posts is “stalking” or “creepy”, I guess I can see how people could feel this way, just like celebrities don’t like being pursued by photographers and journalists wherever they go. But consider this – when you post on the Internet, you really do become a public figure, albeit for most of us in a small way. And, as a public figure, one has to expect the occasional obsessed fan.

    -Steve

  • Great post and great advice. Like it or not we are all plugged in to the intraweb in some way. By keeping your own digital profile via blogs, etc you maintain some control over what people will find when they look for you.

    Blog on!
    Rick Calvert, CEM
    CEO & Co-founder
    BlogWorld & New Media Expo

  • really great and important advice! besides from blogging oneself, though, another way to build a profile is to contribute to some important websites or group blogs. I’ve contributed to Online Journalism Review as well as Poynter Online, so when I search my name, my profiles at those sites come up. Comments on prominent blogs also come up. On the one hand, it’s fascinating to see what comes up–disappointing on another when stuff from 2 years ago is higher up than something I did a couple of days ago.

  • It’s a bit unsettling to think that, right now there are drunk/embarrassing pictures of future Supreme Court justices and world leaders on Facebook.

  • The lifespan of Facebook as a visual repository of our individual misdeeds will not be long. It wasn’t around ten years ago, I doubt it will be ten years hence.

    But the continuing erosion of the boundary between what’s public and what’s private will accelerate.

    And the sad fact that once a bit of yourself is in the noosphere it can never be called back is the most disturbing aspect of this brave new world.

    I, for one, always have followed Danah Boyd’s advice (more or less). My online identity is fully fleshed out, but only contains bits and pieces of who I am as I choose to reveal it.

  • Great advice all round. I’ve set up a decidedly public profile under my own name and a decidedly anonymised one for my parenting blog (which gets a lot more readers!) With FB, it’s been necessary to set up two profiles – one with reasonably strict privacy controls for family and friends and a different one with utterly anodyne content for interacting with our students. As you say, the key thing is consciously taking control – if you don’t want your name to appear on the web don’t use your name!

  • Paul

    I was beginning to wonder if it was only me who was puzzling about the apparent total lack of concern for privacy on social networks. Does my twentysomething daughter not realize that 10 years from now all of those photos of her partying with her friends and being loser drunk will still be lurking around on the net ?

    In part this is a generational issue – my generation (the boomers) is very concerned about privacy. However, today’s pop culture is all about celebrity – call it the cult of celebrity. Reality TV is a prime example of this. To “make it” you must become a celebrity (e.g. Paris Hilton). YouTube, MySpace, Bebo all cater to that phenomena. Facebook is perhaps more networking oriented, however, as it becomes more open the celebrity aspect will become more dominate.

    My generation (the Boomers) learned the hard way that money can’t buy you happiness. My daughter’s generation will learn that celebrity is totally fake and superficial – it will just take some time.

    Thanks for your thoughtful post.

    -Paul

  • For me, one of the more worrying aspects of this is the extent to which people equate what we said 1 (5, 10, 20…) years ago with who we are now. The idea that embarrassing photos of me exist on the net (hypothetically ;) is less irritating than the idea of people equating those photos with my character now. We make mistakes, we’re all stupid, and we learn. But archives shrink that process, such that “then” becomes “now” all over again. For some reason, it’s harder to look at a photo on-line and think “my, how things have changed” than it is off-line.

    I’ll continue to avoid using my real name on-line as much as I can, I think. I don’t hold much hope for attitudes changing too soon… :(

  • Great points, especially for those who don’t really grok the “power of Google”. Particularly notable is the comment on audio and video…Cory Doctorow makes this point as well. As audio and video search improves and integrates into the cloud, this will be a massive change; another veil of pseudonymity to be removed. And since people are in the background of pictures, in YouTube bar videos that they don’t even remember, etc….things will be quite surprising at times.

  • Jem

    The easier solution in my eyes (easier than hiding behind privacy options) is to simply not write anything online that you wouldn’t want your mum/boss/whoever to read. I just don’t understand why so many people struggle with this – thinking that the Internet is a good place to divulge your sexual secrets or plans to murder your step-mother is seriously naive.

  • Embrace a public profile based on everything you’ve ever written, and then keep adding more. So why hide a little panel that says simply that you have a name and a Facebook account?

  • … because it also exposes my friends and students.

  • But the facebook public profile doesn’t include any friends information.

    Here’s an example of what one looks like: http://www.facebook.com/p/Thomas_Ho/27300891

    Nothing is exposed except a face and a way to request contact with Thomas Ho, but only if he recognises you and adds you as a friend would you get any further information.

    So I would welcome this as a tentative step towards getting some of the facebooked conversation back out onto the real internet instead of hidden behind the propietory garden fence. Telling people to clam up is unnecessarily protective.

  • Note the “View Friends” link that shows a list of every friend you have. You’ve just exposed your network structure and that says a lot about you.

  • Steve

    Reminds me of the time we installed Google Desktop on a couple of the machines at work. I was horrified to realize that by default, your entire browsing history is indexed. A tad embarassing, if I hadn’t caught it and changed the defaults. Then the boss asked if we could set it up to index everything on our LAN (which we can) and I had to explain to him that things like personal emails would get indexed. We finally settled on a more modest configuration that indexes just the production files on the main file server, which actually accomplished what the product is good for in our context.

    -Steve

  • After 15 years of lurking online, this morning I registered a domain, signed up with a web host, and put up a placeholder blog. It’s not quite as impulsive as it seems — I’ve been doing intermittent “research” on this for a decade — but your post was the tipping point.

    As someone who was (virtually) impossible to find via Google until very recently, I’m more than a little ambivalent. But in the long run I suspect it’s for the best, largely for reasons you cover above.

    FWIW, the last time I was really ready to do this, several years back, I was quite miffed to find that someone had recently registered “my” domain name: apophenia.com. My annoyance has long since been replaced by gratitude that I’ve been able to follow your work since before you were “Internet Famous”.

    My thanks,

    –James Crowley

  • i really appreciate this post, as well as many of your other postings. i think you’re right that we have to be proactive about our identity online. it’s very parallel to controlling your identity in the workplace. you might be a banker who loves heavy metal, and just as you would never go to an alice cooper concert in a 3-piece suit, you would probably never go to work in a black leather and chains jacket. that is part of managing your image, which people view as your identity.
    – jeremy

  • I recommend postings in things like forums for Linux distributions. Those are very aggressively indexed, so a little participation goes a long way. In fact, the Launchpad system seems to create fifteen million different user pages for you, so it immediately boosts that identity towards the top of many search results. :D

    I hope my bug reports have been intelligent…

  • Several years ago, i Googled myself for the first time. The first thing that came up was a letter to the editor I wrote to a PRINT magazine about 20 years before — this was pre-Internet, pre-anything. The people who ran the website where this appeared were stealing copy without permission from a variety of publications, apparently including letter columns. To my dismay, however, the website was named something like “hailsatan.com” This probably explained why I had a hard time finding a job at that time!

    To the credit of Their Satanic Majesty, I wrote to them and said that I hadn’t given them permission to reprint my letter and I knew what they were doing was illegal, so take it off the website. They did so, actually, to their credit. And then I started putting up articles I’d written over the years on my own websites that showed me in a much better light, clicked on them repeatedly and asked my friends to do so, which drilled “hailsatan.com” way down into the depths of Google. Now what comes up most often, tho’, are reprints of my teenage fanzine science fiction of the 1970’s (which I DID give permission to reprint, but probably shouldn’t have!)

  • Milla Valkeasuo

    That was quite an interesting and informative article.

    “We make mistakes, we’re all stupid, and we learn. ”

    I totally agree with you.

  • Alcira

    Ok, let me first say, I think you are very cool both as a person and as a researcher. I accidentally came across your blog and have been browsing for a while now. A lot of interesting posts… but this comment here upset me:

    “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.”

    Ok, so I’ve read a lot of your posts from 10+ years ago. But it probably wouldn’t have occurred to me if you haven’t advertised them in your bio… So I don’t think I am stalking you but maybe I am.:-O If you don’t want people to find/read things, don’t post them. I have to say though I am glad you have left those old entries up. I think there are probably many people that can relate to what you were going through. I do. There was one post that I read I thought I could have written it myself.

  • Jeff Bridge

    I was a bit ‘loose’ on Facebook until I realised that employers, or even worse, potential employers could easily search your name up and see exactly what you get up to. Even worse, each comment of FB is timestamped – a potential employer could easily discover that you use it during working hours! No job for you I’m afraid!

  • Diego Regalado

    I believe that if people don’t want to be seen in a negative way then they shouldn’t post bad stuff about themselves. The Internet should for the most part be used constructively and if you put stuff up that you know could hurt you then you shouldn’t whine about it. This post tells the absolute truth, that if you want people to have a good appearance of you then you yourself should make it.

  • Coming to the conversation late, but I wonder if a good rule-of-thumb to pass along to students of social media would be “you might have a walled garden, but we can all see it … so you need to have a good green thumb!”. I tell my students that rather than focusing on how we can keep folks out, we should instead thing of what we are planting there in the first place!

    In some ways, trying to grow these “walled gardens” goes against the social networking focus – connecting with users. The strength of our network is in the number of connections we can form, after all!

  • *as I make several mis-spellings above (sheesh!)

    It’s an interesting debate – do we have a (qualified) right to privacy when online, or do we assume that there are always folks peering over our walls?

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