Have you ever searched for someone on social media or googled yourself? What did you find?
Now more than ever, technology impacts our first impressions of others – and the impressions others have of us.
Every single day, we leave behind a digital footprint, consciously or unconsciously, that influences the way people think about us. The uncontrollable journey our digital footprint takes can create a virtual minefield that can make or break our reputation, career, business, and possibly our life in a blink of an eye.
Digital Footprint Disasters
Let's start with a few stories that demonstrate the consequences people suffered from mismanagement of their digital footprint:
- The newly hired editor in chief of Teen Vogue was forced to resign after racist and homophobic tweets surfaced from a decade ago.
- A senior control analyst at a corporate investment bank was fired after posting a comment on a news article on Facebook.
- A vice president of external affairs at a cancer center was fired after making anti-Trump posts during a Facebook spat.
- The top US salesperson at Lacoste was fired for posting a copy of his paycheck on his private Instagram account.
- Finally, a journalist for the Des Moines Register who wrote an article exposing racist tweets by a sports fan was fired after someone uncovered his own racist and homophobic tweets.
Even after terminating these employees, there were potential ongoing consequences for the organizations they worked for. There isn't one industry or one profession safe from a social media disaster caused by one of their employees failing to apply common sense when managing their digital footprint.
What exactly is a digital footprint?
Every time you go online you add data to the internet. Your digital footprint is made up of the records and other traces that you leave behind as a result of your online activity. These traces create an online portrait of you, which will be seen and judged, fairly or not, by others.
There are two different types of digital footprints: conscious and unconscious. While the technology and social media we use are constantly changing, it's essential for us to understand both types of footprint that linger on in a digital world.
Your Conscious Digital Footprint
If you post that you have just arrived in New York City, you made a conscious choice to disclose to the world where you are. This is part of the conscious footprint that you leave behind. Your conscious digital footprint contains all your assets on the internet. It includes the information that you intentionally share about yourself and others, whether it is in text, images, videos, connections, or other data.
Your Unconscious Digital Footprint
Each time you visit a website, your device shares information like your IP address, your web browser type, and your location. You may not be aware of this data, but others have access to it. That's why you will suddenly notice advertisements and location-based information on your phone.
What Your Digital Footprint Says About You
You might think that your online activities shouldn't define you as a person, but unfortunately they increasingly do. Each tiny bit of activity, either from your conscious or unconscious footprint, when combined form a complete profile about you and influence the assumptions people make about you.
Just like a physical first impression, the human mind automatically judges people based on the digital footprint they leave behind. Did you post dozens of pictures during your visit to the Big Apple? Well, it seems you weren't able to put down your phone and live in the moment. That shopping spree on Fifth Avenue? Seems like a big salary raise took place lately. Those tickets in the first row at that sold out Broadway musical? I wonder who you know. Let me quickly check your friends list.
Not existing on the internet at all isn't an option anymore either. People might think you have something to hide or simply nothing great to offer. They might assume you're not tech savvy or don't have anything to say. It’s best to aim for somewhere in the middle, and try to find a balance that is just right.
How to manage your digital footprint
Now that you understand what a digital footprint is, and the potential consequences it can have, let's focus on how to avoid pitfalls and manage your digital footprint.
Step 1: Assess and control digital risks.
Take a thorough look at what is currently on the internet about you. Start by searching for yourself online using the private browsing mode, also known as incognito mode. This is the best way to evaluate what others see when they search for you online.
When the results appear, click on the images, videos, and new steps to review the content. Do another search on all social media accounts and platforms you have profiles on. You must have a clear picture of your footprint to control what others are meant to see.
Step 2: Review everything in the digital space. Use your Aspirational Focus as your guide.
What’s your Aspirational Focus? It’s one word or phrase that encapsulates what you want to be known for. Do you want to come across as an expert in your field? As a competent person who gets things done? As a spectacular individual who lights up a room? A compassionate contributor? A daring adventurer?
Make sure that everything visible in your digital space aligns with your Aspirational Focus. If that’s not the case immediately remove everything that does not represent you in the best possible way. To do this, identify whether you or someone else has control over the piece of content. If you control it, you can remove it yourself. If you do not control it, try reaching out to the owner, and asking them to remove it. But know that sometimes they will not, which is why it is very important to proactively manage how others portray you online.
Step 3: Limit your risks by digging into each platform’s privacy settings.
Check if you would really like to share your posts with everyone in public, or limit them to those you trust. Choose whether everyone is allowed to post on your timelines, or if you would rather approve posts before they get published. Update any other settings to match your personal preferences.
Step 4: Represent yourself and your company professionally online.
For most of us, social media gives us the wonderful opportunity to communicate with friends and family all over the world. However, with every interaction online you also represent yourself as a professional, and you represent the company you work for. Unfortunately, most people simply don't differentiate between the private human being and the professional.
So while we all have our personal struggles and strong opinions, consider whether they should be shared online. Before sharing, ask, would this be something I would want to be known about me one year, five years, ten years from now? If the answer is no, proceed with caution, as once something is shared online, it can never be permanently erased.
Step 5: Maintain your digital footprint.
Just because you have cleaned up your digital footprint once does not mean you are done. Get into the habit of regular digital footprint maintenance. Software updates could impact your settings.
Nurture your digital footprint and be mindful of the implications of both overuse and under use of your online presence.
Use your Aspirational Focus to guide how you create and modify your digital footprint. If you want others to identify you with your Aspirational Focus, ensure that all of your digital actions are consistent with it. If posting a picture does not align with your Aspirational Focus, don't post it. If you want to be perceived as hardworking, do not hang out on social media all day. Is being savvy with technology part of your brand? Make sure you learn how to use the applications you are on and avoid missteps that show you do not understand the etiquette on that platform.
Ensure your digital footprint is the best reflection of you. It will enhance your influence as a leader, and build trust with people you meet today, and for years into the future.
And if your company doesn’t have a social media policy – now is the time to create one!