Shape your Online Image or Others will Shape it For You

My story begins with a fax machine. A fax machine in a walk-in stationery cupboard at a law firm at the start of my working life.

It was new and fandangled, the height of whiz-bang. We were all taught to work it but no one understood it, so it wasn’t long before a paralegal – thankfully not me – got in strife. Something he’d faxed had fallen into the wrong hands.

“A fax is like a postcard,” a partner informed a hastily gathered assemblage in none-too-measured tones. He had a walrus moustache and baggy suit pants anchored by a belt to his ample hips. “It is not private!” Advertisement: Story continues below

Years later, nothing has changed. Broadcast mediums come and go but the principle remains the same. Whether you’re faxing, podcasting, blogging, tweeting, retweeting or posting a photo/video/link to your or someone else’s MySpace or Facebook page, it’s all in the public domain. And if you say it, you must own it, along with any downstream consequences.

Privacy has recently been cast by vested interests as a value of yesteryear. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said: “When we got started … the question a lot of people asked was, ‘Why would I want to put any information on the internet at all?’ [But now] people have really gotten comfortable, not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people.”

Last week’s about-face by Facebook on some aspects of its controversial and complex “opt-out” privacy settings suggests that reports of privacy’s death may be greatly exaggerated.

But even if Zuckerberg is correct that social norms around personal privacy are relaxing, he left something out.

For people to make informed and voluntary decisions about the exchange of their personal privacy for the benefits of social interaction, recognition and celebrity, they must understand the risks and benefits the choice entails.

In particular, they must recognise that the snail trail of their online life can be matched, mashed, collated, broadcast and rebroadcast by anybody, in any context, for any reason, for many years into the future.

What’s out there – however partial, slanted, decontextualised or downright wrong – comprises your online, and contributes to your real-world, reputation.

Reputation is an old fashioned word, but today – as in yesteryear – it still matters. What others think about you is a compendium of what you look like, say and do over time, as well as how these elements complement or contradict each other.

Reputation matters because people must often make decisions about you before they know you. To do this, they must rely on reputation, or its protean precursor, first impressions.

In a world where “no privacy” is the chosen or default setting, there will be a broad range of data out there – a personality test sat long ago, a tweet sent after a first date, photos of a drunken night – from which an interested party can build an image of you. That image may make implicit or explicit claims about your wisdom, competency or character.

That our broadcasts may have consequences for our lives often gets missed. This is because most of what we do online attracts little attention. Usually, we are trying – and failing – to be heard.

But at some point in nearly everyone’s life someone will surface with the time and inclination to track back through the digital detritus of our online existence. They will decide whether to trust, respect, like or do business with us – and advise others to do the same – on the basis of what they see, hear and read.

We can’t control this process, but we can influence it. We can affect it by taking care with what we allow into the public domain in the first place. We can also proactively develop and nurture our personal brand in the hope that if and when others say false or malicious things about us, they roll like water off a duck’s back.

Build your image or others will shape it for you, an image consultant told me. “People will think things about you. You can either passively allow that to happen or get actively involved in shaping your reputation,” he advised.

Publication history

Shape your Online Image or Others will Shape it For You   The Age