The Internet And You: How To Cultivate A Good Online Presence
The online world occupies an odd place in our lives.
We know, rationally, that anything we put online ceases to be private. However, our natural instinct is still to see anything out online as little like anything done in a public place. There’s a reason we call it “Facebook stalking” and not something more neutral like “looking someone up on Facebook” – looking up someone’s Facebook profile when you’re not good friends with them feels invasive. It’s like being in a public park and listening in on someone else’s conversation – sure, they’re talking for anyone to hear, but we accept all the same that it’s not polite to nose into someone’s business when they haven’t specifically invited you.
In the context of university and job applications, this all becomes more complicated. Sometimes companies or, less commonly, admissions tutors will google your name. This is a bit like wandering by someone’s house to sneak a glance in their windows if the curtains are open – it’s certainly tempting, but can feel very much like an invasion of privacy if you’re on the receiving end. Sometimes they will come across your online presence because you drew attention to it in a covering letter or personal statement, for instance by referencing a blog you write. Then, if they follow the trail to personal social media accounts, it’s a bit more like they peeked in the windows when you invited them to see your front garden.
There’s a society-wide debate to be had about where the borders of our privacy should lie – whether it’s your responsibility to close the curtains, or theirs not to look – but for now, we’re stuck with the situation we’ve got, where practices that feel invasive, up to and including companies requesting your social media passwords, are becoming if not accepted, then increasingly commonplace. Given this situation, here’s what you can do to make your online presence work best for you.
A good place to start when tidying up your online presence is simply to google your name and see what comes up. The results might surprise you; it might be that your secondary school, sports club or hobby group has been putting photos and information online without you being fully informed. While you’re under 18, they have to tell your parents, but you might not have had a say. If there’s anything that reflects badly on you there (and we don’t mean an unflattering photograph), you can request to have it removed. But usually this kind of online presence is helpful: it shows that you are who you say you are, and may bear witness to some of your achievements too.
There may be other surprising results as well – social media accounts you’d forgotten you had, or a website you put together years ago. Check these for anything unfortunate, and delete as required. It may be that they’re linked to email addresses you discarded long ago and that deletion is made deliberately difficult. You can always email or ring the webmaster – the Data Protection Act is very much on your side and companies are restricted in the data they can hold on you without your permission.
You might also want to consider the name you’re using online or in your applications. It may be that you share a name with someone who you don’t want to be confused with, that you have a very common name and would like your online presence to be easier to find – or vice versa, that you have a very rare name and would like to be a little more anonymous. University admissions tutors do need to be told your real name, but there’s nothing wrong with adding or subtracting a middle name or middle initial if that makes your online presence a little tidier.
In response to concerns about data, privacy and over-sharing, there are plenty of people who are now choosing not to have social media accounts. The flip side of this is that there are also industries where employers will think you are a little strange if you don’t have a social media account at all. It can be an unwinnable battle. A few tips if you do decide to use social media:
Get to know them, and use them wisely. Only make things public if you are happy for them to be public for a long time, and check your settings regularly in case the site you’re using updates.
Usernames: Pick something sensible, ideally related to your real name and not including your date of birth; employers don’t have the right to ask your age during recruitment, so you may not wish to give them that information for free. Avoid anything like iheartcats or, indeed, iheartchrisevans.
Your best-laid plans can be ruined if less cautious friends tag you in things you don’t want to be associated with. You can set Facebook preferences so that you can’t be auto-tagged, and have to accept a tag before the post appears on your wall. And remember that it’s better to have a slightly awkward conversation with a friend about why you deleted their post than miss out on a university place or job because of something your friend could just as easily have told you more privately.
Social media sites might ask for a lot of your data, but it’s fine only to fill in the required boxes, and leave everything else blank.
Whether LinkedIn is useful for getting jobs seems to depend a great deal on the industry you’re looking at getting into. When you’re at school, you probably won’t benefit from a LinkedIn account. If you do decide to get one, you’ll need to be sure that you can trust your friends not to endorse you for anything embarrassing.
It seems very unfair that you can be judged negatively for something that is not your action, but think about it from the employer’s point of view: if you can’t control your friends from messing around with your online presence, will you be able to control them from distracting you at work or sabotaging you in other ways, for instance by talking you into staying out late when you have an early shift the next morning? The same issue exists across all social media, but is particularly acute in relation to LinkedIn as it is strictly a site for professional contacts, and therefore you need to be able to behave professionally while using it.
Blogs and other work for public consumption
A blog, Twitter feed, YouTube channel or anything else created for public consumption can be a great boon to you. If you have heaps of readers or followers, that can be tremendously impressive. From a university perspective, if you are producing content related to your chosen subject, and it’s well-produced, popular or both, then that’s a very good sign for the work you’ll have to produce as an undergraduate. From an employer’s perspective, it doesn’t even matter if the work is related to their business; if you’ve managed to get thousands of likes, then you may have talents in marketing or customer service that they can put to good use. Don’t underestimate these kinds of skills, either – not everyone has them, and they can be very valuable.
The downside is that if work is specifically intended for public consumption, then you have to think about the impression it will create on people. Let’s say you have mental health problems, which you blog about regularly, and you’re thinking of studying Psychology. This can be great from a university admissions perspective: it demonstrates bravery, maturity, and the desire to help others by challenging what can be a deep-rooted stigma. They may even take it as evidence that you are working hard to overcome any difficulties that your mental health poses to the continuation of your studies. Universities are usually well-attuned to difficulties of this nature and will work to support you. Good news all round! However, if you’re also applying for a Saturday job in a shop while writing about how there are some days when it simply isn’t possible for you to get out of bed, an employer might decide to pick someone who they believe will prove more reliable.
One way to deal with this may be to keep your blog detached from your real name. You can note in your personal statement that you’re the author, but avoid it being found when someone googles your name. Or you could say that if your prospective employer is going to be prejudiced against someone with a mental health condition, then you probably didn’t want to work for them anyway – a harder, but braver stance to take. It’s your choice, but it’s best to take it consciously, in full consideration of the facts. There are lots of other blog and vlog topics where these kinds of issues are at play, from politics or activism to any discussion of personal issues.
Another thing to consider when putting your work online is the awkward question of whether your work is any good. This is unfair too, in its own way. To paraphrase Chris Baty, the founder of National Novel Writing Month, when you’re playing amateur sport, it doesn’t particularly matter if you’re amazing at it. No one expects you to stop playing football with a group of friends in the park at a weekend because you’re never going to play for the Premier League. Similarly, if quizzes are your hobby, no one expects you to give up even if you never win. For most hobbies, then, there is no expectation that you need to be more than averagely good at them in order to take part in them.
Creative hobbies, for whatever reason, are different. It’s a sliding scale: if baking is your hobby, most people will expect you to be a good baker, if not outstanding – right up to hobbies such as novel writing, where the assumption that so vexed Chris Baty is that if your novel isn’t good enough to be published, there’s no point in bothering. If you do a creative hobby for fun, whether it’s writing, painting, drawing or making short films, we have a culture that judges you much more on the quality of your output than it would ever judge the speed of someone who swims for fun, or the handicap of someone who likes to relax with a round of golf.
This spells trouble if you like to produce creative work and share it online, even if it isn’t amazing. This is particularly the case for transferable skills like writing. It might be that you posted your short story with its cardboard characters and its purple prose online because you wanted to share it with friends and the quality of the writing didn’t matter all that much – but you risk university admissions tutors and prospective employers judging you on it all the same. You could, as above, suppress your real name on the site so it can’t easily be traced back to you. Or you could write in your description that the work is just for fun (perhaps implying that your best work is not available for free) and hope those reading it take you at your word.
It’s worth remembering that the internet as we know it hasn’t really been around all that long. ARPANET was developed in the 60s, online groups among the general public first started to appear in the 80s and the World Wide Web – or everything you do when you open up an internet browser – was only made available for public use in 1993. People born only ten or fifteen years apart can have significantly different views on what the internet is for and how it should be used. Asking for a social media website password seems to a younger person like asking to have a photocopy of your personal diary and every text you’ve ever sent; for some older people, the invasion of privacy might not seem so stark. Remember the public park; it’s rude to go and listen in to someone’s private conversation, but that’s a rule that exists only by general awareness and consensus, and you probably shouldn’t be yelling out your bank details there. Rightly or wrongly, the onus at present is on you to sanitise your own online presence, not for others to respect your privacy. Take care, use the tools at your disposal, and you should be fine.