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The Quick & Simple Guide to your Online Reputation

Written by admin, Wednesday, February 16th, 2011 in Culture, Geek Stuff, Getting Things Done

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I have received a number of e-mails recently asking me how to handle what most people now call their “online reputation”. From what I gather, a number of Well Cultured readers have discovered that a lot of friends, potential employers, and even potential schools have been doing amateur background checks on them via Google — and that’s something of a scary prospect to many of us, who grew up on the ‘net and probably have more forum accounts than we do pairs of socks.

With that in mind, here are some tips to ensure your 12 year old MMORPG account “DBZRocks1985” is safely buried away in the annals of time.

Destroying a bad reputation

In most cases, the issue with online reputation isn’t what isn’t online as much as it is what is online.

Unfortunately, the reality of the internet is that, due to the proliferation of bots and mirror websites, online history is remarkably difficult to “kill”. Websites like archive.org regularly archive forums and websites, essentially creating irreversible encapsulations of stupid forum posts, comments pages, and game profile pages. Obviously, because these websites don’t have a policy of removing things merely because they embarrass you, it is fairly certain that you can’t do much about them.

In a similar vein, there is very little you can do about what other people post about you. Blogs, wikis, and websites run by small dedicated groups are usually set up to prohibit removal of embarrassing information, which both provides interesting content and, in some instances, personal embarrassment. Like the above, there’s little you can do about these websites.

Fortunately, you can handle virtually every other website. The vast majority of forums, social networking websites, and video games have account removal functions of some sort. These functions are typically buried deep into the website to disincentive their use, but they nonetheless exist. Moreover, even if the websites do not allow the removal of accounts, most contain deleting and editing functions that allow you to remove (or replace) the vast majority of content connected to your account. Because most larger, potentially more embarrassing websites (Facebook, MySpace, DeviantArt, et al) have these functions, this means that the vast majority of the embarrassing information on the web is removable.

So what can you do?

  • Remove accounts you do not use and keep them dead. The best thing you can do is empty, but not delete an old account. By doing so, you not only remove any incriminating content (like stupid posts or drawings you made when you were 12), but you also ensure another user cannot take the same account name and pretend to be you.
  • Periodically clean up accounts you do use, particularly Facebook and MySpace accounts. Social networking accounts are troublesome because they oftentimes can be embarrassing or degrading for reasons out of your control — an angry or foolish friend can easily make your Facebook wall look childish and ridiculous. If you must have these accounts, keep them as low-key and inoffensive as possible.
  • Create dump e-mail accounts and switch around as much as possible. Because providing an e-mail address is a requirement for most forums and games, create and utilize spam-only e-mail addresses that are not connected to your professional image. Doing so not only prevents the harvesting of your information, but it also keeps your other e-mail inboxes clear. If you can, change the e-mail address itself every so often — doing so will ensure you never go too long identified with the same spam e-mail.
  • Avoid associating yourself with shady crap on the internet. No matter how tempting it seems, avoid voluntarily signing up for unnecessary contests, programs, “free video games”, and the like. While some of these services now have privacy policies, the vast majority of them (especially contests and groups on Facebook) use your personal identity in order to market goods and services elsewhere.
  • Remove embarrassing/inappropriate pictures, comments, names, titles, etc. This is self-evident.
  • Be nice on the internet. Seriously. As silly as it seems, try to keep a sense of decorum, especially when using an account that can be traced back to your personal information. Getting angry about things that happen on the ‘net is ridiculous. If you did have a particular blog or forum post whining or crying about something, delete (or edit) it as quickly as possible.
  • If you have a serious issue with defamatory comments, contact the site owner and/or a lawyer. In very very limited circumstances, you may be able to contact a lawyer and have defamatory posts and content removed. This is very dependent upon the content itself (specifically if it is intentionally/recklessly false), the harm to your reputation (specifically if you can prove it), and the like. This avenue is a last resort, and should be used incredibly sparingly.

Building a good reputation

Once you have your bad reputation in check, it’s time to build a good reputation. This is, compared to trying to remove information, arguably the more enjoyable and worthwhile endeavor.

The core concept in building a good reputation is reputation control. Because the ‘net is diffuse and somewhat wild, an online reputation tends to spawn from random sources (like forum profiles and the like) if there is nothing “solid” for it to spawn from, like a personal website or the like. Thus, the best way to build a good reputation is to deliberately create things like personal websites and website profiles in order to gain control over what pops up on Google and other search engines.

Some tips:

  • Make a personal website, or at least a personal profile. Google Profiles, Facebook, LinkedIn, and other websites allow you to create and micromanage personal profiles as they are displayed to the public, which is an essential tool in crafting an online reputation. Sign up for all of them, connect them together, and as I mentioned above, check on them (and update them!) often.
  • Consider running a blog on something you know. Blogs can be both profitable and low-maintenance, and in many cases allow you to propagate your desired image to the world. Legitimate blog websites like WordPress are invaluable for such endeavors; Livejournal should be avoided like the plague it is.
  • Sign up for websites and projects that will positively reflect upon your reputation. Public member lists can be beneficial if you sign up for the right groups. Being listed as a member for a charitable organization is always a plus. Still, be careful about signing up for highly political organizations or causes — unless you’re willing to be associated with anything and everything the group does, don’t “endorse” them online.

In Closing: Who cares?

Unquestionably, one’s online reputation matters right now. However, to be honest, this article may become obsolete in the future: the internet’s simply too ubiquitous to be considered embarrassing in its own right, and most adults over the age of 18 have been using the ‘net for quite some time. Though at the moment accounts on World of Warcraft may be a source of embarrassment or derision, at some point it will become fairly standard to have a “history” of internet use — be it a history of MMORPG playing, stupid alcohol-fueled picture galleries, or flamewars.

Until then, however, maintaining your reputation is an unfortunate part of life. A little bit of work right now can save you a lot of strife in the future.

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