It was February, 1990. I had been using the Internet for about four months. Usenet, a distributed messaging system, was all the rage. For the first time, I started to see the possibilities of connecting and communicating with other people who share similar interests. I weighed in on a discussion about the Blues Brothers band.
Last week, twenty-two years later, I found that post online. It’s not particularly embarrassing, though it does betray the naïvité and arrogance of the nineteen-year-old college freshman who posted it. He was so smart. I wonder what happened to him.
When I made that post, sitting in the second floor computer lab of Kreger Hall, I wasn’t thinking about my digital footprint. I didn’t consider the possibility that the message could still exist two decades later, or that my children might someday read it. I was simply participating in a discussion. I had something to say, and I said it.
If we’re going to actually benefit from our use of the Internet, we have to be participants in the online community. That means we’re going to leave footprints. We’re going to share ideas and photos and perspectives online, and the things we share are going to form our online identities. People who search for me online are going to find things about me. They’ll learn about who I am. They’ll see that I blog and that I occasionally do some webcasts. They’ll see that I post on Twitter quite a bit, and that some of that stuff is related to technology and education, and some of it is not. They’ll learn about my family and my hobbies and the places I’ve been. That’s all good.
A few years ago, I learned that we have reached the point with all this interactive web stuff where you can’t pretend to be someone else online. Teachers, especially, used to have that “work life” and “personal life” which were completely separate. It’s not really possible to do that anymore. If you’re participating in social media, you can’t pretend to be someone you’re not in the online spaces. Your true character will shine through. That’s good too.
Take a minute and Google yourself.
Go ahead. I’ll wait.
What did you find? For me, the first page of results are all good things. They’re all about me. Many of them are related to my professional work. On the second page, I found a few photos of me that I’ve never seen before. I also found a couple links to inaccurate “people finder” services that claim to know who I am and where I live. On page three, there are a few links to other people with the same name as me (including my Dad). After that, the links become less relevant and less useful, but most of them are still about me.
I’ve been making digital footprints all over the Internet for more than two decades now. I also have a fairly uncommon name. So it should be pretty easy to uncover my secrets, to find a little dirt, to gather information to discredit or embarrass me. But a casual search for me doesn’t even turn up the photo in which I’m (allegedly) not wearing any pants. The biggest reason for that is the fact that there’s a LOT of stuff about me online. There’s enough out there that it paints a fairly complete picture of me. Almost all of it is stuff I chose to share. So if there were some scandalous photo or tweet or blog post out there someplace, it would be overwhelmed by all of the positive stuff about me that’s also online.
As we teach our kids how to manage their digital identities, it is important for them to realize that the footprints never go away. Everything you post online — from the photos on Facebook to the tweets from your phone to the emails to your Mom — are public. Even if they’re private now, you have to assume that some day, they won’t be. All it takes is a forwarded email or a retweeted direct message to change something from private to public.
But despite this, it’s important to continue to share. Put good things online. Put lots of good things online. Use your real name, and share work that you’re proud of. Put your perspectives out there. Comment on blogs. Post in forums. Share photos and videos and resources. Learn in public. When people Google you, you want them to see that you’re a real person. You have an online identity. People may not agree with all of your opinions. But they’ll see the good things you’ve done and shared. And the picture they see will reflect the real you.
Photo credit: peternijenhuis on Flickr.