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Is it Time to Clean Up Your Digital Identity?

How to manage the information that’s out there about you.

By Tim Walker

You might have forgotten about that slightly racy joke you posted to your Facebook page four months ago, or that less-than-civil tirade against a political candidate you posted to a popular blog two weeks ago.

You might have forgotten but the Internet didn’t. Five or so years of social media saturation led by Facebook and Twitter and way too much over-sharing has created an online archive documenting much of the daily lives, thoughts, and misadventures of millions of Americans. And everyone has a key to this archive—including your family and friends, and your former students. Someone who doesn’t know anything about you may get to know you through some of your more regrettable or unsuitable posts. First impressions, including digital ones, can be hard to shake.

“There is a heightened awareness about the horror stories regarding the use of social media,” says Maria Anderson, an educator and technology blogger (

But the answer is not to wipe clean from the Internet anything and everything related to you and abandon it. That’s overkill. But if you share a good part of your life online, you’re probably due for a spring cleaning. And once that’s done, there are steps you can take to manage your content and avoid damaging your reputation.

Find Out What’s Out There

The first step to your digital house cleaning is to find out what the Internet has on you. It might be painful, but sit down, brace yourself, and key in your full name into a search engine, such as Google ( or Bing (, and check out the results. When evaluating your results, focus on the first three pages; people usually don’t bother to look beyond the first few pages of the search results. Once you know what is out there, you can make a plan to address it.

Start Scrubbing!

A good goal to set is to “take over” page 1 of search pages looking for information about you. The best way to do a quick cleanup is simply to change your profile picture and perhaps your “about” info on your Facebook page. If old posts or out-of -date information comes up, see if you can take it down or update it with information that you choose.

Maybe someone you know posted embarrassing or personal content about you. If so, ask them to remove it. If you’re nervous about other “digital dirt” showing up, add positive information to the Internet so that the positive results come up first. By perhaps starting a blog and/or a website, you can point employers to what you want them to know about you. If you’re a frequent commentator on websites and blogs, be aware that you generally have to log in through Facebook. That means whatever you say can be traced back to you. Check to see if you have made any comments that could be perceived as derogatory or inflammatory.

Update Your Privacy Settings

If you want to keep some of your personal information private, use the privacy settings on your online profiles. Still, things aren’t as private as they seem—partly because sites such as Facebook and Google are constantly changing their privacy settings, which many users don’t bother to update.  

Create and Manage Your Digital Brand

Once you’ve cleaned up your digital identity, be proactive and create your own digital brand. What do you want people to see when they search for you online? It could be a well-written, regularly updated

blog, or news of some notable event in your life. And if you’re seeking employment, says Andersen, “the effort to curate your digital brand will help when it points to a collection of professional information that paints you as a rational, hardworking, and professional person.”

“If you aren’t creating it [a digital profile], then the rest of the world is doing it for you.”

Stay on Top of Things and Be Careful  

Set up alerts via Google ( or another service that sends you an email when your name is mentioned in news stories, blogs, or videos. If you have a common name, add additional information, such as the name of your school, town, or city. Or, include your profession in the search description.

Even if you’ve completed a thorough makeover of your digital identity, however, unless you always think twice before you post, something can always come back and bite you.

“It doesn’t matter how private you think your Facebook settings are,” Andersen cautions. “It doesn’t matter how carefully you choose whom to send that email rant to. If you wouldn’t want it to be forwarded to your friends or family, then don’t write it in a digital space. Some topics are best left to an old-fashioned conversation.”

Protect Those Passwords!

Creating and maintaining a secure password may not seem related to your social media life, but it is at the core of online security and privacy. It may take a little time to complete the following steps, but it will certainly be much easier than dealing with an online security breach. If your password is "123456," change it immediately. It is the most common password and the easiest to crack. Do not use the same password or username for everything, instead think of a word or topic you can remember and use different combinations. Make sure your password includes capital letters, preferably in the middle, as well as numbers.

Also, if you access your social media from your phone, as is increasingly the case, you should consider using a device password. Most of us don't log out of Facebook, Twitter, or Google+ each time we use them on our devices, so whoever can reach your phone will be able to access your social media applications, and of course all those photos!


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