Friday, December 23, 2011

Your Future Self May Thank You: Tidy Up Your Online Presence Over the Holidays

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The holiday season is often a period of looking backwards and forwards at the same time. We reflect on the happenings and learnings of the twelve months that are coming to a close while anticipating what may come our way in the new year ahead. As a practical outworking of this reflection and anticipation, I encourage you to set aside some time to tidy up your online presence. And perhaps even encourage others around you to do the same.

A couple of things got me to thinking about this as a worthwhile endeavor for the holidays, when most of us in the education world on are a break and can devote some time to the project.

Educators Under a Social Media Microscope

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Social media and its uses are fascinating to me, and as a result I often read stories of how educators making controversial choices in their use of social media put their jobs in jeopardy. The moral turpitude clause in our contracts leaves us more vulnerable than many other professions. The story of Ashley Payne is particularly concerning to me, because unless there are untold details, it seems she lost her teaching job as a result of posting a picture of herself holding (not even drinking) an alcoholic beverage and taking part in a trivia contest that had a profanity in its title. Most concerning was the fact that this young woman had fairly tight "friends only" privacy settings on her Facebook account; someone copied this information from her profile and anonymously submitted it to her principal. She had taken the precautions educators are continuously counseled to take, and it still wasn't enough.

Ashley's story began in 2009. As recently as October 2011, Ashley is still in court trying to get back her job or monetary compensation.

I read of Ashley's story through two ISTE articles, which are well worth reading for educators concerned with protecting their jobs as much as possible in times when teaching positions are becoming more scarce due to cuts in funding at the federal and state levels. You'll see in these articles that issues with teacher online conduct are not unique to K-12, but have affected professors in higher education as well.

Facebook Timeline Makes Our Online History More Accessible Than Ever

At about the same time I was reading of Ashley Payne, I became more aware of Facebook's new profile layout called Timeline. After glancing at articles about it over the past few months, I decided to give it a try on my personal profile. I realized quickly that this new layout for Facebook profile pages makes everything you or anyone else has ever posted on your Facebook wall/profile infinitely more available than it ever has been before. The information has always been there, but if you were really digging into someone's Facebook past, you had to scroll endlessly to get to it. Now, if someone has activated their timeline, I can just click on 2008, then March, and see exactly what they were documenting online at that time in their lives. It's extremely simple.

I can see some Facebook users thinking this is no big deal. The ones who stay educated on privacy settings have nothing to worry about, right? How quickly we forget the lesson of Ashley Payne, who had her profile set to private, and had information leaked from it anyway.

While I've aimed most of this information at educators who need to take extra precautions in the social media realm, what about teens who have posted without care and without paying attention to privacy settings for several years? Or friended people whom they don't really know in person? How might their future educations and careers be affected by their profiles being much easier for others to scour?

Fortunately, with a little education, you can clean up your Facebook Timeline before it goes public. And it will go public for everyone eventually. A quick search of Facebook help reveals that folks can opt in early, or simply wait until Facebook decides to move you to the Timeline setup.

I would encourage you to opt in now, while you have some time to go back through and hide or delete posts you don't want your friends or anyone else to see. And if there are others in your life who use Facebook, help them do the same. When you activate your timeline voluntarily, you have seven days where you can see it and work on it before anyone else sees it. Why not take that time now, instead of waiting until you are forced into it?

Activating your Timeline now is a perfect opportunity to tidy up anything that was perhaps posted in haste or which could be misconstrued or misused by others.When you first activate your Timeline, Facebook steps you through a little tour of all of its components. This article, Your Guide to the New Facebook Timeline Privacy Settings, is also an excellent resource which details all of the changes to the privacy settings that come with Timeline and also shows you how to delete and hide content from the Timeline. It is very thorough and includes screen shots. Another good article: Prep for Facebook's Timeline Layout: 6 Must-Do Privacy Tweaks.

If you are in a position to talk with your own children or other young people about their Facebook presence, Polishing the Student's Image on Facebook Timeline provides good ideas for how to give context to the importance of cleaning up your online image. My favorite quote from the article:
Know your brand. Everything you post online says something about you. Ensure that is a message you want to convey.

Remember Your Other Digital Footprints, Too

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Facebook is a common location for us, but there is also YouTube, Flickr, Twitter - the list of where we display our digital selves is endless. Unlike footprints in the snow or sand, online footprints do not disappear with a change in external conditions. They must be cultivated by their owners.

While you are tidying up your online presence, don't forget to visit some of those places where you, or others, have been contributing to your online image. In today's world, your online image equals your image as a person, so make sure it is representing you the way in the way you want to be seen and in a light that will open doors of opportunity for you in the future.