For a long time I thought a lot about my online identity. By this I don’t mean “What do people think of me online” or “Could I become a victim of identity theft”, but more “How visible am I on the internet”. I thought a lot about it mostly because I didn’t want people to be able to google my name and find out a whole lot about me. I wanted to be invisible and anonymous on the internet. I have heard so many stories about bosses googling their employees, potential employers googling their candidates, girlfriends googling their boyfriends, etc.
Search engines make it possible for employers to scour all manner of digital dirt to vet employees. Online profile company Ziggs.com CEO Tim DeMello fired an intern after he discovered that on the intern’s Facebook profile he divulged that while at Ziggs he would “spend most of my days screwing around on IM and talking to my friends and getting paid for it.”
It just so happens that I have a pretty unique name. If my name was John Smith, I would have never thought twice about it. However, chances are, if you google “Bryan Chain” every result you see is related to me. This made me even more paranoid. The fact that my name isn’t common just lends itself to a google type search. It gets worse when google isn’t the only name in town when it comes to finding things out about people online.
As such, I avoided social networking sites and avoided ever using my real name anywhere online. I actually did a pretty good job overall of keeping myself pretty invisible, I flew under the radar. When I decided to write a blog though, I had to make a decision. Some people argue having a blog is a good thing for your identity since if you get high search engine rankings, the blog appears before anything else; which gives you control. Others, argue that it just exposes you even more.
If you love and nurture a blog, it will likely become a great asset in your reputation management arsenal. But the great thing about a blog is that it tends to rank well, even when left un-watered. Blogs are the cactus of online content. WordPress.com and Blogger.com both provide free blogs and free hosting. Add just a few posts, keep it targeted to your name—that means use it in the blog title, posts etc—add a few links and bake for a few days. It will be on the first page of Google in no time.
It was either maintain my anonymity and write this blog using my most common online alias “WerkkreW”, or pull the covers off and stop caring. I felt that to write a blog as a fake person would take away from why I am writing this blog. As you can see, I stopped caring. I feel that I have nothing to hide. You won’t find pictures of me smoking a bong or murdering someone online. At best you’ll learn a little bit about who I am, which is hopefully not enough to get me fired, unlike the author of dooce.
Still though, I hold back. I have yet to write about anything personal, I have yet to write about anything directly related to my job, I have not released who my employer is. I think about this a lot, actually. Much of my inspiration to write comes from my personal experiences and my experiences at work, yet, I am both afraid to make those parts of my life public, and also, am not vain enough to think anyone on the internet cares to hear about the fight I had with my dad.
I think there is an important balance to managing your online identity. Like it or not, if you use the internet, people can, and will, dig up dirt about you. I suppose the best balance is to not be afraid to make use of some of the tools which have made the internet so useful, but to not expose so much about yourself that it could come back to hurt you.
Don’t be afraid to make use of sites like MySpace, Facebook, and others to reconnect with old friends. Keep your profile conservative and tasteful. Be weary of the types of photos you post. Chances are your employer does keep tabs on these things. My employer invited me to join the “MY COMPANY” facebook group, I declined. To make things a bit easier, most sites have pretty advanced privacy features. On facebook you can have basically 3 profiles. Public (which can be set so no one can see it), Restricted (Give certain people access to a limited profile), and Full (people who can see everything). If you make careful use of these it can become fairly easy to control just how much presence you have online, and who has access to it.
Like it or not, people have lost their jobs, and gone to jail over things they posted on social sites such as facebook, myspace, youtube, and others. If you take a sick day from work, don’t post photos of yourself in a dress from that day. It really boils down to one thing: Don’t be stupid. If you realize that a quick google of your name would reveal these things you have done to anyone, including your friends, family, and employer, would you still have posted it? If the answer is no, don’t.
At this point, I feel very secure in my online world. If my boss googles my name and finds this blog, I would not be embarrassed or ashamed. I do not like feeling inhibited though. Many interesting things happen to me at work, and in my personal life, which I would love to write about, but simply cannot. So what do I do?
One friend suggested I set up another blog which I would use to simply anonymously vent my personal feelings. I do not think this is the best approach. I think the best thing to do, for me, is to just keep certain aspects of my life private. Everything you post on the internet basically becomes public domain. Remember that if you want to one day become a senator but you just finished posting pictures of yourself on flickr doing something a bit controversial.
It is pretty simple to protect yourself in the online world, and unless you are involved in something highly illegal, I don’t think most of us have anything to worry about. The rules are simple, only make the information public if you are ready for anyone to see it, because chances are, they will. I think being too paranoid about your online identity only takes away from the usefulness of the tools we now have available to us.