Digital footprints: helping or harming?

Much of the conversation about our online presences (at least as regards our careers) has often focused on the dangers of embarrassing Facebook updates getting back to our employers, or putting off potential future employers. This is a worthwhile conversation to have; it’s important to make sure that our privacy settings are properly calibrated, and that we are not shooting ourselves in the foot by mixing public and private.

However, there are two points I’d like to make about this. The first is that I believe that pretty soon, it won’t matter all that much. Partly because people are becoming more familiar with the technology so as not to say stupid things publicly (danah boyd points out that a lot of online activity among young people is in “code” so as not to alert the wrong people to what they are talking about). But also partly because it will matter less the more public life becomes on the internet. I don’t think there’s much we can do to stop that. Our data is being sold very cheaply indeed by Google and Facebook – a slightly different conversation, but all part and parcel of larger numbers of people knowing what we do without us really being aware of it.

The corollary to that is that I think employers will care much less about what a young person did in their past, and more about the reviews that are posted about their work on various sites. The flip side of this new visibility is that community-built trust systems are developing to make sure that people are doing what they say they do – review systems. Not all are foolproof – Tripadvisor can be “gamed” – but Airbnb is pretty solid.

The second point is that despite the risks, the internet also provides plenty of opportunities to harness its communicative power, and the power to showcase. And that’s a really important point that is left out of the conversation. I think the real way to manage our digital footprint is not so much to police ourselves so very rigidly, but in fact to ensure that there is overall much more positive stuff out there about us than negative.

What are we missing? How can we make ourselves not only more visible in the right ways, but showcase more authentically what we are about – what we care about, what we’re good at, what we would like to contribute to in the future? Once we direct the conversation there, I think we will stop worrying so much about who did what on Saturday night.