This post was originally published in The Daily Collegian, Penn State's student newspaper. It was cross-posted to The Huffington Post with permission.
Imagine running for president of the United States in 20 or 30 years.
Your activity on social media in past years will be heavily scrutinized. Perhaps especially from your younger years. What types of things did you post about in college? Who did you most interact with? What were you like?
Of course, not every job out there goes under the magnifying glass like running for president does. But applying for just about any job in the 21st century will subject you to Google searches, social media visits and blog hits. (Not to mention meeting new people, dating and other things you’ll do in the future.)
What will searchers see? It depends what you do online every day. That’s what shapes your personal brand. It’s how people see you. You develop a digital persona over time by what you post, how you post it, and when. Every word can have an impact.
And with the Internet, any word, combination of words, video or photo can be amplified at any time. So you have to keep that in mind as well.
All of your activity on social media and the Web, even right now, even when sharing privately, can re-surface later and have implications years down the road. Private messages to one-time friends could be shared publicly in the future if the friendship fades. Every post, status update, tweet or photo could reappear, and all it takes is one mistake that “goes viral” to haunt you. You want your digital record to appear clean. For it to seem spotless, ideally, or at least as tidy as possible.
Some tips for keeping your digital presence clean?
1. Avoid trolling on the Web, even though it’s so easy to do and it’s so common. Try not to put other people down. You never know when you’ll encounter someone again in the future. Treat others well on the Web, and others will often return the favor, giving you a positive digital identity.
2. Consider staying clear of certain topics that could put you in danger. For instance, use caution when posting about politics, religion or other issues that people typically have strong opinions about; in the heat of the moment, you might say something you’ll later regret. Or if you do post about these things, if you want to let people know where you stand, just know you may have to answer to that later.
3. Watch closely for anything you’re tagged in. With facial recognition technology of the future, any photo of you at all — even if not tagged — could resurface, so use your best judgment in “the real world” too.
4. Beware of the mentality, “Oh, I can just delete that later.” Screenshots can happen at any time. You never know.
5. Take a deep breath every time you’re about to hit “Post” or “Tweet” or “Send” (email is part of your Web presence too). Think about how you’re identifying yourself to the world, even if it is to just one person because you never know — if not now, years from now.
6. Don’t be fake and don’t lie. Make sure you’re proud of what you’re sharing and that it is authentically you. While they often involve fleeting moments, posts to social media can be pulled up again later and make you look foolish.
7. Careful not to be too silly. Understand the offline consequences of treating the Web as a joke — even if you mean something as a joke, it can be interpreted differently, especially when re-visited at a different time. In a lot of contexts, you can get away with jokes, but sometimes they can come back to really bite you.
With some effort, you can go above and beyond tidiness to make your online presence stand out — not just maintaining an active social media presence, but utilizing digital products in creative ways that make you unique. In job searches, for instance, this can really help set you apart.
It’s not always easy to see the impact of your online activity, especially when you’re young, having fun, experimenting in the world and figuring out your life. It’s so easy to get lost in the moment. But what you do online, every moment of every day, can have consequences; you have to take responsibility for it.