I was chatting with a girlfriend the other day, and I told her how I periodically like to clean up my Facebook profile. By “clean up” I mean remove older posts from my timeline and untag old photos. Today, while I was creating a physical photo album of my wedding, I got to thinking about why exactly I feel the need to do this. What makes photos and posts online different from a photo album on my shelf?
Here’s the big difference: The Internet remembers everything. Once information is up there, it is very, very hard to take it down. Photos are reproduced and saved elsewhere, status updates are shared, tweets are retweeted, and their reach grows exponentially. (A recent example is of the kids who asked their dad for a puppy and were told they could get one if they got one million “likes” on Facebook. Needless to say, they got the puppy.)
If you don’t manage your Facebook timeline carefully, those posts, inane comments, shares and unflattering photos will populate it forever. Unless you show some discretion (“having good judgement” or “being able to make responsible decisions”), comments, photos and the ugly details of a crazy evening out on the town could follow you online forever. We have all heard stories of how dubious photos or thoughtless status updates have cost people their relationships or their jobs – let’s not even talk about what tweeting a photo of your crotch can do for your career! Part of living in an online world is practicing online reputation management. Companies and brands do it to monitor conversations about them online, but individuals need to become more aware of the importance of allowing ourselves (and the Internet) to forget about episodes in our past.
We all like to reminisce. Sometimes we have memories that cause us pangs of embarrassment just to think of them. Something we said to someone, a lie we were caught in, an outfit we wore (what was I THINKING?? – it’s okay, it was the 90s). It is healthy to privately remember those moments and draw lessons from them for the future. But why does a status update need to remind everyone who can see our Facebook timeline about it? When you accept a friend request today, ask yourself if you really want that person whom you’ve most likely just met briefly at a dinner party to see the gory details of your college party days. There is always the possibility of taking the time to carefully manage our groups of friends and limit who can see what, but in the end even those who lived through experiences with you might not necessarily want to be reminded of them every time they click “view friendship.”
But most importantly, we need to remember how the information we share on places like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram affects people other than ourselves. Are you posting photos of yourself with friends or parents who aren’t on Facebook (yeah, I’m guilty)? Are you tagging people in unflattering photos? I have to admit to having gone through a Facebook phase in which I would post any and every photo I took, approve tags of all kinds of silly faces I made, and not think twice about posting a photo of myself with a friend or family member who isn’t on Facebook without asking permission.
It was my Chico who first challenged me to think more carefully about what kind of information I posted. I have no right to invade his privacy by sharing with everyone the fact that he hilariously wore mis-matching socks this morning (that’s just an example – that has never happened. That I know of.). Then, working on this website and consolidating and managing my personal brand online made me even more conscious of that fact. Doing a Google search of “the brain in jane” produced many surprising results that I hadn’t even realized would be visible publicly (nothing shocking, mind you, but that search was certainly informative). That’s when it hit me that even information that is posted “privately” online and doesn’t show up in a Google search is still present in a public space. The Internet is not, by any stretch of the imagination, private, no matter how strict your settings on social media.
So my challenge for everyone, including myself, is to think twice before posting. Let’s ask ourselves, “How will someone else perceive this? Will it hurt someone’s feelings or offend unnecessarily? How will I feel about this when I read it in two weeks, two months or two years?” But most importantly, let’s ask ourselves, “How will my kid feel when he’s a teenager and he sees all the poop-related status updates and baby photos I’ve posted of him through the years?” How will he feel, indeed?