Friday, June 29, 2007

Embracing Our Digital Legacies...

We've all heard it before. After a night of partying when an embarrassing picture of you was taken, when the laughter among friends finally dies down, someone comments "Well, I guess you'll never be president!". Well, New York Times contributor Thomas Friedman seems to agree. Earlier this week he wrote a column on the impact of the internet and blogosphere on everyone's professional lives, in which he argues that because people are publishing and sharing so much content in cyberspace (photos, blogs, posts on discussion boards, etc.), the result is a "digital fingerprint" which will have significant consequences years later.

So how much of a "fingerprint" exactly are we leaving behind, and how much will it really matter? Should we be scared?

Friedman warns young people that because of internet publishing "your reputation in life is going to get set in stone so much earlier. More and more of what you say or do or write will end up as a digital fingerprint that never gets erased. Our generation got to screw up and none of those screw-ups appeared on our first job résumés, which we got to write. For this generation, much of what they say, do or write will be preserved online forever. Before employers even read their résumés, they’ll Google them…"

There's a frightening amount of truth in this statement, but what may come as a surprise is how much your digital fingerprint already affects your professional life. Potential employers are Googling you before an interview ever takes place, professional colleagues MySpace you before meetings, and professors are using Facebook to see if your excuses are legitimate. I can personally attest to this. When one student didn't hand in a research paper and afterwards gave me a sob story about a family emergency, I went on Facebook and saw his newly posted photographs from the week the research paper was due of him and his buddies in the Bahamas on a booze cruise.

Nevertheless, we shouldn't be scared and we definitely shouldn't stop interacting in cyberspace. It's quite possible to use these digital fingerprints to our advantage and see this as an opportunity. For example, just as embarrassing posts might hinder an employer from hiring you, thoughtful and intelligent posts promoting certain personal qualities could actually improve your chances of landing a job. Think of purposely creating a digital fingerprint which would act as an online resume. This is how I've always treated my maintenance of this blog and also my personal website. You won't find any naked pictures or comments by friends making reference to a crazy party in college, but, despite my occasional anti-iPod lunatic rants, I would actually hope that future professional colleagues will look me up online.

All of which demonstrates that, in the end, our digital fingerprints might be more detailed, but they're ultimately no different than any other part of the various legacies we leave behind. And as always, the only way to ensure that your past won't hinder your future is to follow this basic principle: act honorably.


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