Identifying your public-facing online identity

People who love to interact with others online, whether via social networking sites, fan sites, commenting on blogs, or just chatting on forums, often have the biggest problem with managing an online identity. People consider certain sites (like their LinkedIn profile or their online resume) their “public presence” and send these links freely to potential employers or other important contacts. They might even have one of these links on their business card. However, most take for granted that people won’t research independently, ignoring the “sanitized” links readily offered.

The fact is, your LinkedIn profile or your resume isn’t any more public than your Livejournal, your MySpace, or your ranting comments on that Lost fan blog. Depending on a myriad of factors, those “non-public-facing” parts of your online personality may actually be MORE likely to show up in Google results.

Multiple personalities

Many people also think that using a different or made up name (lostfan4874vr!) can protect your “private” online presence from your public-facing personality. This simply isn’t true, because there’s almost always a way to connect the two. Location, email addresses, URLs, and other bits of information can easily draw the line between your multiple personalities. Alternatively, using a name that’s not easily identifiable may keep you from being associated with content that would actually help your reach your online reputation goals. No one wants to say to a potential employer, “Oh, I DO blog about widget XYZ, just under the name widgetmaker07.” Using your real name to manage your online reputation lends credibility to your web presence.

Identifying your public-facing online identity

The important distinction to make when managing your online identity is not which sites or profiles you simply think are your public or private sites, but which ones actually allow for some modicum of privacy. Livejournal, Flickr, Twitter, MySpace, Facebook, and LinkedIn all have complex (well, maybe Twitter’s privacy settings aren’t so complex) privacy settings that allow for some control over who sees what in your profile. You need to identify which of these services is instrumental in maintaining the online identity you’re going for, and adjust the privacy settings accordingly. If you often rant about work in your Livejournal, that thing needs to be private. If you have a WordPress or Blogspot blog that’s public, you need to make sure that any content on that blog is thoughtful, well-researched, and relevant to your topic. Your personal life should never make an appearance on that blog. Planning on putting up drunken pictures? Choose Flickr, where you can limit sets to friends or family-only. Don’t upload the whole album to your public MySpace page.

Ideally, you should have a list of public facing accounts and privacy-enabled accounts. If a particular site or service that you use online doesn’t allow you to restrict who sees your content, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use it, but it does mean that you should imagine anyone (and I mean anyone, including your boss, your annoying coworker, or your mother) will be reading what you write. Any and all public online content can be archived by Google. Even if you later take it down, it can still be accessed via Google’s cache.

What to do?

Make that list of public and privacy-enabled online accounts. Keep tabs on the sites you sign up for and be mindful of what you’re posting on sites that don’t allow any privacy restrictions. On the contrary, actively seek out opportunities to improve your online reputation by guest posting on a blog that’s well-read in your field, adding professional interests to your MySpace page, or starting a blog of your own based on a topic you’d like to add to your online reputation.


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