Have you ever done a Google or Bing search for your name? Try it and see what shows up. If you use the Internet with any frequency, you might be surprised at how much information about you is available online. I found old news stories, comments I’d made on blogs and membership details from an organization.
According to a 2013 study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 37 percent of web users believe it’s possible to be completely anonymous online. And even if you’re in the 63 percent who knows that’s not true, you might believe that what you post online only stays there for a while – and that if you delete it, it will disappear. Not true.
It’s easy to forget the permanence of the Internet when you’re posting information on Facebook or interacting in forums and blogs. Everything you say in a space that’s accessible to the public ends up being “crawled” by search engines like Google and living on, long beyond your lifespan. Deleting a post of image from a public website can be hard to impossible; many websites technically own your comment once you’ve added it. And even deleted material lives on for quite a while.
Would you want to be remembered by comments like these? (Yes, they are all real comments.)
- I just spent all day drinking wine and playing Candy Crush.
- Survived my colonoscopy! Yeah, Me!!!! You don’t want the details of my prep!!!
- Two of my best friends are under five feet tall and I have an intense fear of midgets.
Keeping Your Posts Private
You do have some control over how much of what you post on the Internet goes public and ends up on Google. Some sites let you set privacy and posting preferences; others let you use a screen name – any name that you make up that is not readily identifiable as you.
- Facebook You have to use your real name on Facebook; screen names are not allowed. You can choose not to use a profile photo, which is always shown in a public search. Privacy settings allow you to designate which friends see your feed and whether they can share your updates with other people. Private groups allow members to comment within the group; comments are not shared publicly or with your friends. But remember that Facebook keeps changing the rules, so you have to remain vigilant.
- Other Social Networks Twitter and Pinterest allow users to pick anonymous screen names. Check each site carefully to learn about their publicity policy and rules before setting up an account. For example, Instagram, a photo-sharing site, has the right to share your photos in ads.
- Blogs and web forums have different rules for commenting. Some community forums are private and require users to log in before they can see what others are saying; these private forums are inaccessible to Google, so your comments won’t show up there. Others are open to the public but allow you to use a screen name. Most blogs are public, so your comments may show up in an Internet search. You can comment anonymously using screen name; think twice before adding a photo to your commenter profile, if the site suggests it; adding a photo of yourself will identify you, even if you sued a screen name.
Cleaning Up Your Act
As you interact across social media, try to be aware of what you post and how it reflects on you. Using your real name and photo can help establish your credibility, but it also makes your online history more traceable. As Simone Smith pointed out in a recent Huffington Post article, “Every time you post something online perform the New York Times test. Ask yourself, “Would I be comfortable having this information about me in the New York Times?”
Are you sharing family photos? If so, do you ask permission first? How will your grand daughter feel if her naked butt shows up years from now? And, what about your profile photos? Smith suggests, “Before selecting a photo to upload, ask yourself: “What counts as an appropriate profile photo on this site, and what would I like mine to say about me?”
What’s Your Online Persona?
Smith’s tips are useful, but her statement that people over 60 don’t need to worry about their online reputations isn’t valid. Of course you do. At any age, it’s important to consider the impact of what you share. You can control your online presence by developing a plan that suits your commenting purpose and personality. Maybe you choose to be GrandmaSue and talk about grandparenting; maybe you’re Mave22 and stick to adding quick notes of appreciation and LOLs to what you see online; or perhaps you’d prefer to use your real name, a recent photo and speak on matters of importance to you. The choice is yours; just understand the benefits and risks.
As seniors, we want and need an online presence. You have much to share with the world – your wisdom, experience and thoughts on life and society. Balance and awareness are the key elements to creating a safe experience when using the Internet.
For more information on cleaning your digital footprint, check out this useful article.