Question 6 of 365: What happens when your Digital Footprint becomes a liability rather than an asset?

Question 6 of 365: What happens when your Digital Footprint becomes a liability rather than an asset?

Everyone has a digital footprint that could get them into trouble. No matter how careful you are, if you are posting things online, they represent who you are (and possibly who your employer is). So, as you build your network, your content, and your wuffie; you may find yourself in a situation that calls for you to try and undo what has already been posted.

I am not running for any kind of major office, but I tend to think if I were, I have given my opponent a huge amount of ammo simply by being open to the learning process. To me, it is the learning process that gets us into the most trouble. Last year, I posted about my struggle with people who talk about teachers when they aren’t around. My CIO read it and fired off an e-mail asking me if anyone on his team was the subject of the post. I had to explain a lot of the comments within that post and he was very understanding about it, but I think that with a different CIO or with a few of the statements I could have made would have left a dark mark on our relationship or even lead to my termination.

This example is not unique. There are many different ways that a Digital Footprint can signal the downfall of an otherwise happy employment, friendship, or business relationship. It is simply that so much of our lives are lived out in the open. The biggest single problem is that by sharing that life with others through a blog, twitter, or a flickr account, you are no longer in control of much of it. Your Digital Footprint can take on a life of its own.

By putting yourself out there, you are letting others reframe who you are in their own blog posts and twitter accounts. You are giving them the ability to infinite link to your content and promote your least appealing idea to the top of the Google search page with your name as the keywords. So, what do you do when this happens? How can you really fight back against a crowd of people who are working to highlight your digital blemishes, especially if they are “viral”?

You have a couple of options. Option one is the Web2.0 Suicide Machine. This single web service will allow you to delete all of your content, friends, and connections on social networks. You can actually watch as the machine unfriends each person. This will get rid of part of your problem, but the worse issue is that Google remembers everything. It will have a cache of your content as it existed. And, everyone who posted about your stuff will still have theirs up. You are now even more defenseless than you were with your content up there.

The only other real option is to form a network around what it is that you do want to highlight. The only real way to take back control of your Digital Footprint is to leave a bigger, better version of it elsewhere on the web. Work with people who have your best interests in mind and have them link to your greatest ideas. Oh, and never stop posting. The more content that you can put out there, the more diluted any single post will become. While you can never shove the words back into your mouth, you can give the world new words to know you by.

When your Digital Footprint becomes a liability, read that as a sign that you have been treading too lightly, not seeing the true responsibility of wearing your online shoes. So, start to walk with purpose. Press firmly into everything that you are doing and posting and thinking through. You will indeed leave a mark, and if that comes back to haunt you, get some Doc Martins.


  1. I just finished watching _American Masters: Zora Neal Hurston_ on PBS. In it, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. commented on the moment when Hurston's publisher asked for an autobiography and Hurston obliged. Gates commented on the trouble of an autobiography in that a person begins with who they see themselves a in the moment they are writing and then attempts to map the events of their life as though they were conclusively moving toward making them that version of themselves.
    In Hurston's case, she claimed a false hometown, lied about her age and such. In the case of our digital footprints, those others who are reframing us are also keeping us honest. Without a doubt, they can tear at us, rip us apart, slander us and the like. At the same time, the create a complete picture. I write honestly online because those who know me will recognize dishonesty and call me on it.
    This is the augmented reality. We are the first objects to be cataloged.
    It's not a footprint, it's a mask. The question we face is whether or not we're crafting masks that resemble us.

  2. This is my favorite comment so far.

    I really love the idea that we are creating masks rather than being
    transparent about who we are. Whether we represent ourselves or other
    represent us, the only truth is the relationships we have with people. Any
    writing we do is a caricature, a lens for others to see us through.

    I wonder if the most transparency is on page 13 of your Google search and
    not on page 1. That is where the relationships (the links, the mistakes, the
    conversations) seem to happen, but even then, it probably is still masking

  3. I just finished writing about a failure. It was awkward and required
    multiple drafts.
    It felt great.
    I want that to be part of my mask.
    As I was typing it, I felt this incredible sense of importance. My mind told
    me it was also likely to be one of those posts that gets little play and
    then slowly works its way down the page. Still it will be one that I can
    point to with pride and say, “This is a place where I learned.”
    I wonder if we should stop warning our kids against questionable content on
    their online spaces. We do this because we didn't have what they have when
    we were where they are. Thus, we see that material following them and
    holding them back as a liability. What if that picture of that kid with a
    bong won't make the difference to a potential employer because the employer
    once did stupid stuff and realizes a Facebook profile isn't the full measure
    of a person?
    I'd argue we're a generation away from losing our prissiness online.
    I'm not arguing recklessness, I'm arguing we'll be able to hold ourselves
    together long enough to say, “Oh, you were a kid? Fancy that.”

  4. That is a perspective that I don't think I have ever considered. If we are a
    generation away from losing our prissiness online. Are we also a generation
    away from people trying to protect the “moral fiber” of our online
    identities. I feel like both of those things go hand in hand.

Leave a Reply