If you’re worried about your digital footprint, don’t destroy it — make it bigger.
The #10YearChallenge flooding social media this past week has prompted a lot of people to look back on their past. The concept is simple; post a photo of yourself in 2009 and in 2019 and show everyone how much you’ve changed (or not). But uh, are you totally happy with what you’ve posted online over the past decade?
A side effect of this meme is that looking back on your past via social media can trigger anxiety for many people when it makes them realize just how much is there. While digging through old Facebook photos to find that 2009 profile picture, you panic: wait, did I really post that photo of me at my 21st birthday party where there’s whipped cream on my face and I’m holding a bottle of vodka? Oh, but wait, you think with a sigh of relief. That whipped cream photo is friends-only. Except… your friends have changed a lot in the past ten years. When you posted that photo, your parents weren’t even on Facebook yet. You’d posted it to your high school and college buddies. But now, a friends-only post on Facebook, no matter how long ago it was posted,1 is visible to your parents, your boss… even your grandmother has a Facebook account now!
The panic continues when you move beyond Facebook and find that same photo on Twitter. And also another tweet from seven years ago that, now that you’re considerably more woke, you realize is pretty sexist. And tweets are public! The whole internet can see this! What if they’re dug up the next time you’re on a job interview! What if the next person you meet for a first date googles you first! What if you ever decide to run for office!!!
One common reaction to this kind of sudden panic over your digital footprint is to burn it all down. Delete your social media accounts! Bury that digital footprint forever!!!
That strategy kind of sucks because (a) maybe you like social media, and there are opportunity costs to extracting yourself; and (b) it’s really hard, if not impossible, to actually erase your digital footprint. Besides, do you actually want to be someone who doesn’t exist online?
Coincidentally, ten years ago I was in law school, and had helped kick off a blog for a law journal. Students working on the journal were all invited to write blog posts about tech law issues. A couple of students asked me if their posts could be anonymous, not including their name. I asked why, and the answer was essentially: because then there would be something there when you google me.
The issue wasn’t that these law students were embarrassed to be associated with a law review (I’d certainly hope not!), but they were worried about having any digital footprint whatsoever. Which was probably partly because every career workshop we had emphasized how critical it was that future law firm employers couldn’t find our whipped cream photos. But the problem is conflating any digital footprint with a bad digital footprint. The other problem is that, especially now, ten years later, it is really, really hard to not have any digital footprint. Part of this is just because so much of our lives are online now, and anyone who does anything relevant to another human is probably online somewhere.
I’m a pretty extreme case since I’m a professor and public scholar, but beyond published papers and media articles and that kind of thing there are a ton of smaller things that come up when you google my name: a short story I published twelve years ago, a defunct “staff” page from when I worked as a technical writer, my creative commons licensed photos that have been used in blog posts, movie reviews I wrote for the Georgia Tech newspaper when I was an undergrad, and even my mother’s obituary.
Because here’s the other hard truth: You don’t have complete control over your online presence, and you never will. Not only can the rest of the world reveal things about you without your permission, but you might change your mind about what you want to share over time. None of the things above about me are whipped cream photos, of course, but if I decided that I am far too much of a fancy intellectual now to want anyone to read that short story about a sphinx who parks herself in front of a guy’s bathroom, it would be really hard for me to have it taken down from a publication venue that’s been shut down since 2009. (Clearly, I don’t actually care, which is good!)
But all of this lead-up wasn’t to suggest that you’re in a hopeless situation if you think there are skeletons in your digital closet. Here’s the advice I’ve been giving for the past ten years: when it comes to your digital footprint, what you do typically have control over is a first impression. You don’t have to erase everything in your past, you just need to bury it under the impression you want to make to the world. The best thing you can do for your digital footprint isn’t to make it smaller — it’s to make it bigger.
So how do you do this? First, google yourself occasionally. Find out what is available about your online. And then, make sure that you have control over what appears at the top of those search results. For many people, this could mean creating a personal webpage (which is easier now than ever!). Another option is making sure you have a LinkedIn profile, because LinkedIn apparently has amazing search engine optimization and very frequently floats to the top. In short, the more you do to control the narrative about yourself, the harder it is for others to find everything else.
When it comes to social media, make sure that you understand how privacy settings work and that you know what is public. Know that even if you only have 200 Twitter followers, there is always the possibility that more than those 200 people can see it. It might be academic researchers like me, or it might be the entire audience of Buzzfeed or Jimmy Kimmel. And know the difference between what you post public versus friends-only on Facebook.
Also remember: If it’s hard for you to track down the evidence of your social media past so that you can delete it, it’s going to be hard for other people to do it, too. If you’re really paranoid, find a tech-savvy friend that you trust, and challenge them to find your digital skeletons.
This advice of course comes with a significant “your mileage may vary” disclaimer. If you’re famous, for example, you can’t even control what’s on your Wikipedia page. Or if you committed murder and were all over the news, it might be hard to float your own narrative back to the top. But for the average person, something as simple as having a personal webpage can at least give you control over your first impression.
And for the future, as you consider what might be in the #20YearChallenge, my usual advice is: know your privacy settings, set norms among your friends (please don’t use my full name when you post photos of me!), delete the whipped cream photos when you do find them, and tweet like Buzzfeed is watching.
Update: Local news in Denver interviewed me about this topic — have a look!