There are a lot of things you do online that are considered perfectly normal and probably will never get you in any sort of trouble or besmirch your good name. Sometimes, though, seemingly innocent things may become horrific defilers of your reputation. There are a few simple rules that those who use the Internet, whether you're 14 or 50, that can be followed to ensure that you steer clear of online reputation destruction.
Rule #1 -- Nothing Is Private
It doesn't matter if the website you're visiting or the profile you're creating is "private" or not, even if it's encrypted by the latest in NASA algorithms and protected by a half dozen ronin warriors with skills surpassing those of Raiden... private is rarely private for long on the Web.
Ask Angie Varona, age 14, of Miami. She posted some bikini-clad photos of herself for her boyfriend at the time on a private Photobucket account. Within a year, Angie's photos were being used to advertise pornographic websites and had been spread far and wide after her account was hacked. Now at 18 years of age, facing reputation problems during a time when she should be registering for college, Angie is instead publicly and nationally warning teenagers about the dangers their decisions can post to their futures.
Angie's not alone. Thousands of children every year become unwitting victims of child pornography when their "private" photos are stolen and spread on questionable websites.
That's just one problem. In another account, which I published recently, the comments made by someone on their Facebook wall ultimately came back to haunt them when they were in court during a civil case.
Nothing is private.
Rule #2 -- Context Is Everything
Before you make a response, any response, to something online, think about two things: what context was the original message/post/information given in (the author's intent) and how could your response be taken out of context to mean something different from your intent?
Most of the problems people have with their reputations online center around rash comments made on websites or social media when responding to someone else. In the heat of the moment, people will often type things that they would otherwise never consider. Unlike in the courtroom, however, there is no temporary insanity defense on the Internet.
What you type will potentially stay there forever and be visible forever. Even if you try to scrub it later. Things online have a way of being copy-pasted, redistributed, and otherwise proliferated so that removing the original doesn't mean the content is gone forever.
Whole websites and services are based on keeping old information alive, in fact. The Internet Wayback Machine is one example.
So keep things in context and simmer down and think about what you're posting before you actually publish.
Rule #3 -- Usernames and "Anonymous" Posting Is Not Anonymous
There is little anonymity in using a username or posting anonymously to "mask" your identity. In most every case, these masks are as flimsy as Clark Kent's eyeglasses. They only work in comic books and movies. In real life, its' easy to see through these flimsy disguises.
Every time you do anything online, it is likely being recorded and traced to your Internet connection. Unless you take extraordinary steps to cover your tracks (which few do and even fewer know how to do well), you can be identified.
So always assume that everything you're posting can be traced to you, personally.
If we all act according to these three simple rules, not only will the Internet become a more sociable place, but our reputations will remain intact as well.