Everyday, people all over the world turn their computers on and send small electronic signals across the planet with the click of a mouse. We send pieces of information, from the incredibly significant to the ridiculously pointless, with almost no thought as to where it’s going or who will see it.
I know that I’m certainly guilty of this. I’ve registered for sites and given them information only to download a single file and never venture to that corner of the Internet again. I’ve posted in discussion forums about a wide variety of topics, tweeted, blogged, and posted all over Facebook. I have Googled just about any random question that my mind can manage to conjure.
Because the Internet is such a valuable means of information and resources, it can be easy to forget about the digital trail that each of us leaves behind. Simple things, like posting photos of a night out with friends, can have nightmarish repercussions. In many cases, potential and current employers will take a look at the blogs, Facebook profiles, and any other easily accessible information available about applicants or employees.
There are plenty of guides out there about what to post and what not to post, or how to make your online profile a valuable tool to advance your career and not hinder it, but these guides are missing a very crucial element: We have a right to free speech, and we will use it.
These guides also tend to focus on social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter, but forget about the rest of a person’s digital life. Online gaming, forums, comments on blogs, and just about everything else can pretty easily be traced back to the original poster without much of a problem, unless you happen to always insist upon a different user name.
Perhaps most disturbingly, the single most visited site on the Internet tracks and collects an almost scary level of data about its users. Google, the giant of the worldwide web, tracks each search, the IP address of the user, when they searched for it, and more.
If you have a Google account such as Gmail, you are probably having your entire Web history tracked. This usually goes unnoticed by casual users, but should not be taken lightly. The Web history feature at one time had automatic enrollment, but new accounts have to opt-in to it.
If Google can track the time and IP address of the computer you search from, and then store the information forever under your account and profile, they can essentially learn more about you than anyone else. Facebook buttons, Youtube videos, Google search bars, and complete profile linking is becoming the de factostandard. This means that while you might never post anything stupid on Facebook, that drunken Youtube video of you is only a few clicks away for any willing person to look for it.
Many people will say that the answer is to simply make sure that none of your accounts are linked, to use different user names, and not to post anything too controversial. While I do agree with these sentiments, I refuse to censor myself beyond recognition. I have the right to say what I believe, and no potential job is going to stop that. In the end, the true answer lies in the middle.
We shouldn’t have to censor ourselves, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need to be careful about what we post. A thought-provoking blog, controversial or not, is probably worth the risk, a Youtube comment yelling at a ten year old is probably not. All of these posts and electronic signals we send go somewhere and are seen by someone. You have control of what you send, but be careful. Once it’s sent, you can’t stop the signal.