Lauren Plotnick | Virtual reputations and real life
What goes on the internet stays on the internet
July 7, 2011, 3:34 am · Updated July 7, 2011, 12:00 am·
After a recent Google search of my name, I came across a disturbing realization. Just a few months serving as Executive Editor of The Daily Pennsylvanian, I had unwittingly accumulated a page of unwanted contributions in articles that I did not realize would show up on the Internet and attracted a slew of unwanted commentary about my handling of the job.
It seems contradictory that the things we do to stand out in college can bite us in the future if we are not careful. It’s a sad paradox that while many of us desire to be seen as topics of conversation within the confines of the Penn bubble, in doing so we leave ourselves vulnerable to the realm of an Internet that knows no bounds and has a permanent shelf life. As a result, remnants of our past lives can leave an embarrassing stain when it comes to future endeavors. But must we relegate ourselves to virtual hermits in order to protect ourselves?
When we put ourselves out there by seeking leadership positions in a defined community, we put ourselves at risk of permanently damaging our virtual reputations in two ways: first by saying the wrong things when we attempt to promote our causes and organizations and secondly by placing a virtual target on our backs from people eager to weigh in our performances.
We become vulnerable not only to bloggers with an axe to grind and classmates seeking entertainment on anonymous forums, but also to companions who may not consider the online reputations of their peers. Despite even the best intentions, we are often at risk of consequences any time our name appears in the public domain.
We know that anything that appears under our name on the Internet can be held against us when we enter the real world, and we regularly seek to cleanse ourselves of damaging records. We know to lockdown Facebook profiles, clean up the embarrassing tweets and remove controversial blog posts. But when it comes to things that we didn’t generate directly, we often don’t realize we did something silly until it is staring us in the face on the first page of a search engine.
Removing this type of content isn’t that simple and often comes at a high price. As Editor, I frequently receive requests to remove or alter content that is embarrassing but accurate. The problem is that if we honored these requests, everyone would expect the same treatment and the digital archives that we have worked hard to preserve would be so cut up that they would be useless. As a result we maintain a strict policy that prohibits the removal or altering of any online content. By no means is this a perfect policy but it is certainly practical. Newspapers all over the country are facing the same ethical dilemma.
But when it comes to things that are said of us, unfortunately we are sometimes out of luck. Because a defamation claim must involve a false statement of fact, proving the truth can be difficult and costly, especially when it comes to online content. Employers will not necessarily dismiss mean-spirited commentary that is considered by the law to be opinion. We hope that they will give us the benefit of the doubt, but who can blame a recruiter for thinking twice when they read a claim that you are crappy leader?
We as college students are preoccupied by our reputations at school, yet we give little pause to the lasting scope of the Internet and its potentially devastating impact on our virtual reputations until they affect us personally. Reputation management companies that boast the ability to manipulate search results to defend you from negative content are a potential solution, but these don’t always work and they are always expensive.
It is essential that we know the right way to conduct ourselves when we enter the public sphere in order to minimize the amount of self-incurred damage. And when it comes to protecting ourselves from unwanted attacks it is essential that we decide where think the line should be drawn.
Lauren Plotnick is a rising College senior and Executive Editor of The Daily Pennsylvanian from Potomac, Md. Her email address is email@example.com.