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Young people’s own tactics for public image management online

As more and more people on this networked planet are living life out loud*, public image management is an increasingly useful skill. Some people call it online reputation management, but online is just a “place” where reputations are curated, and among the most skilled curators are thoughtful young social media users thinking about their futures.

There are a lot of those skilled reputation curators at Net Literacy, a nonprofit, youth-led digital literacy organization in Indiana, because its whole mission is peer-mentoring and senior-mentoring in digital literacy by middle and high school students (50% of its board of directors are students).  Maybe the reputation-management tactics of some of its members – Kyle, Will and Alec – would be useful to kids at your home or school. I asked Net Literacy’s executive director Dan Kent for permission to share them here, and he said that would be fine by everybody. So here you go:

  • Kyle: I personally did not do anything to clean up or hide my social networking imprint online. I wanted an employer that might look into that to be okay with my personality and, even more, wanted them to find the actual me and not someone else with the same name. I think my profiles online are something that speaks well of me.
  • Will: I disabled my Facebook from coming up in Google searches so that my LinkedIN would come up if I was Googled by an employer, etc. I was also careful not to post political statements on my Facebook page during election time because I did not want to alienate anybody by sharing my views or start an argument on my Facebook page. I’m not really sure why, but I also protected my tweets. Although this might be the exception to the rule, I thought you might find it interesting that KPMG’s recruiter (KPMG is the company I an interning for this summer) specifically said that they are not allowed to look at the Facebook pages of potential candidates. Still, it is of course important to keep one’s Facebook page clean for employers who do check. I have seen friends change their Facebook names by using their middle name or something so they are harder to find on Facebook.
  • Alec: I hide the details of my profile from the public for the most part. For the sake of employers, I make sure that the information that I present is consistent and up to date. This means LinkedIn matches my resume, which matches my jobs on Google+ and Facebook. Aside from that, I simply never put anything up that I would be embarrassed by if the whole world saw it. I also make sure any public pictures are good clean pictures of just me for clarity for employers.

There’s no question that it’s vital to manage one’s public image or reputation on the Internet, since that’s where our digital footprints are, the most convenient place for people to go for a sense of who we are. But I think it’s also important not to over-curate or try too hard in the self-presentation department. Just as in offline life, people notice when a person seems a little fake or too good to be true. A better strategy might be just to be the multidimensional beings that we are online as well as offline, and if something happens in our lives that we’re proud of, post about it if appropriate for everyone to see. That works better now, and increasingly in this digital age, than trying to hide altogether. If not already the case, it soon will be, that not being able to find someone online raises flags as much as finding only negative representations of him or her – and will become an annoyance to people in the practice of “looking people up” in Google and social media services. We just need to keep in mind at all times – and make it common knowledge – that there’s always a present and future audience made up of people we don’t know as well as the audience we have in mind when we post.

* I’ve heard the phrase “living life out loud now” several times, but most recently in a wonderful conversation between author, parent, and media pundit Seth Godin and American Public Media host Krista Tippett which I wrote about in “Of fearless parenting in this unmapped landscape” that is demanding of children as well as of us.

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