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Your appearance online

Find out what your digital footprint is, what it can do, and how you can control it

Whenever you go online, you leave a digital footprint.

When you share images and messages on social networking sites, post a personal blog or leave a comment on a website, you're creating a “digital identity” for yourself – an online presence that others might view as an extension of the real you.

If you're an experienced social media user you'll be familiar with this information already – but if you're a new or intermittent user of social media, or hesitant to use it because of privacy concerns, it's important to understand what social media is, why you might want to use it, and the type of footprint your online activity will make.

Your active footprint

Your digital footprint is a ‘trail’ of your digital life. This footprint includes your online activity like your Facebook posts, tweets and Instagram pictures. Since online services are usually linked to your real-life identity, your posts, tweets and pictures can often be found by searching online for your real name. If this possibility worries you, you can change the privacy settings on your accounts so they aren't visible to the general public.

Your passive footprint

Your digital footprint also includes data you unintentionally leave behind as you browse the web. This includes cookies that record which websites you visit, and IP address records in databases that document your visits to individual sites.

Reasons to consider your digital footprint

One reason to keep your digital footprint in mind is that many employers practice ‘cyber-vetting’. Interviewers may research your social media presence to form an opinion of you before you introduce yourself in person.

Impacts of your digital footprint 

Advice for managing your online identity

Think about your present and future self when you decide what information to share online. Will you still enjoy this post or laugh at this photo after graduation, when you're looking for a job? Employers often search an applicant’s background to get an idea of who you are. Embarrassing photos from your first year at university might not seem so funny when you’re asked about them at an interview.

Most online services including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, offer a certain level of privacy control. Setting up controls can reduce the type and amount of your content that other users can see before adding you as a friend. Tweaking these settings may also reduce the amount of data that search engines gather about you and display when someone who searches your name.

This isn't a comprehensive guide on these pages but below are a few tips on the settings to consider to reduce the amount of content that others can find about you on the internet.

Managing your online identity

Select an audience when you post. Facebook allows you to choose who can see your posts, when you make that post, as detailed on their privacy information pages. You can determine whether you’d like your post to be viewable by anyone (Public, i.e. both on or off Facebook), just your friends, or a particular subset of your friends that you have allocated to a group. If your settings are set to Public it’s wise to make sure you’re not posting something you might later regret. Facebook remembers this setting for next time, so once it’s set you don’t have to do it again.

Control who sees what – Facebook allows you to set who can see what information about you. It’s a good idea to restrict data such as your phone number and address to those you are already friends with; perhaps you might want to hide it completely. The Facebook audience selector performs this role for a variety of information. For example, it’s possible to retrospectively set the audience for your past posts, meaning you can hide them from anyone you feel shouldn’t be able to see them.

Facebook privacy checkup – This tool allows you to review all of the Facebook privacy settings, and allows you to quickly verify who can see what on your profile, and that you’re sharing your posts with who you want.

Twitter is a somewhat simpler service and so has comparatively fewer settings than Facebook. The main setting you’ll want to look out for is the ability to protect your tweets. In a nutshell this prevents your tweets being seen by anyone that doesn’t follow you. It also allows you to approve or deny those that ask to follow you after you have protected your tweets.

All other services should include some kind of privacy provision. If you’re concerned you’ll be able to find the privacy policies or settings on all of the social media sites.

Additional advice

Consider setting up a new email address for job applications. Using a college nickname or comedy reference in your email address can make it hard for employers to take you seriously.

Think carefully about what you say online too – because even something you intend to be innocent might be taken out of context.

Remember it’s not just employers who see your posts – family and friends are also impacted by what you put online. Make sure you're happy for whatever you share to be visible online. Once it’s out there, it’s difficult to take it back.

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