Monday, March 31, 2008

How to Cultivate Your Cyber-Identity...

In the Internet Age, how we are portrayed online can have enormous consequences. The aggregate amount of material about us shapes our cyber-identity, and, just as in real-space, perceptions matter.

Most articles written by the mainstream media have focused on the problems associated with cyber-identities. For example, numerous accounts have been chronicled about how an employer, impressed by a resume or interview, nevertheless failed to hire someone because drunken embarrassing photos of that person were found online. As a result, most articles on the topic have stressed keeping all of one's publicly identifiable information strictly private.

But your cyber-identity doesn't necessarily have to be thought of as a problem, and, in fact, if this is the only way you perceive it, then you may be completely avowing yourself of tremendous opportunities.

As much as your cyber-identity can damage your real-space reputation, it can also equally enhance it. The internet offers people the chance to re-invent themselves and rise above the ways identity has traditionally been defined. For instance, one's looks (and the often consequent feelings of insecurity) can be more easily overcome online. Additionally, by focusing on one's more positive characteristics, habitual couch potatoes can emphasize their global travels, an unmotivated flounderer can highlight their work ethic and achievements, and the unemployed can frame themselves simply as being freelancers instead. This isn't a form of trickery and you shouldn't resort to lying; it's just a matter of choosing how you want to project yourself to the world.

So what steps can you pro-actively take to enhance your cyber-identity?

First, stop posting drunken embarrassing pictures of yourself to the public. It sounds like common sense, but it's also the first, and sometimes toughest, step towards recovery.

Second, online social networks matter. Facebook and MySpace provide a growing number of privacy options for selecting which of your "friends" can see what about you. USE THEM! It's common knowledge that the majority of people's "friends" on these sites are not really their friends at all - mostly just acquaintances. That means that your identity to these people is largely shaped by what they see on your profile. Again, use that to your advantage. Highlight the positive, forbid access to the negative. Or better yet, don't post the negative at all.

Third, make sure that when someone Googles your name, the first few search results are links to material that you deem acceptable for anyone to see. That includes grandparents, friends, co-workers, the new girl you're dating... anyone. Check out this tutorial for how to manipulate Google's search algorithm to achieve your desired effects.

Of course, it's a lot trickier when someone else has posted material about you to the internet. Unfortunately, there's not a lot of recourse unless the material is so bad or defamatory that it warrants a lawsuit. However, for the more mild variety of negative publicity, there are still a few measures you can take. On the social networking websites, be sure to remove tags of you on any photos other people have posted. The picture will still remain up, but at least hardly anyone will be aware that it's you.

The best advice for combating material that others post about you is to use the tactics already described above, particularly the strategy of manipulating Google results to your advantage. Think of it as a cyber arms race. If a frienemy wrote a disparaging story about you online, you might not be able to shut the website down, but you can at least make sure that when someone Google-searches your name, that disparaging story is the 50th item listed in the search results, as opposed to number 2. The greater both the quantity and quality of positive material about you that exists online, the greater is the chance that the positive links overwhelm the embarrassing and negative ones.

Ultimately, by maintaining a strong web presence on a variety of social networks and other websites, it is possible to cultivate a very positive cyber-identity which you can undoubtedly work to your advantage in both real-space and cyberspace environments.


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