We all know the importance of that first impression—but what about your first digital impression? I started working for Facebook in 2005 and had a front-row seat as people around the world struggled to create and define their digital identity, walking the thin line between over-sharing and not sharing enough. When I started my own company, Zuckerberg Media, I knew I wanted to help people figure out how to act online and how to use technology in a way that didn’t detract from their “real lives.” Enter Dot Complicated, my web community and recent book on that very subject.
Even the most careful, cautious person will eventually post or be tagged in an unfavorable photo, or tweet something they regret. I know I have. So here are my 8 rules of the Internet, all learned through trial and error. In our digital era, hiring managers and potential dates really do check you out online first, so be sure they like what they find.
1. Beware of your “digital doppelgängers” and make sure you differentiate yourself from them.
For example, my colleague chooses to go by Bradley instead of Brad because there is already a well-known race car driver with the same name, who goes by Brad and dominates search results. My colleague wanted to make sure he could stand out. Some expectant parents are even going as far as choosing names for their children based on “Googleability” — the last thing you want is someone with the same name as you running around damaging your reputation without your knowledge! While that might seem a bit extreme, perhaps think about using a nickname or a middle initial online, if your name is a popular one.
2. Remember that people will judge you not only by what you post, but by who you interact with online.
Your friends are part of your online identity! These days, people judge you not only by what you share online, but also by the company you keep. Take an extra second to think about who you accept friend requests from, across all your platforms. Tell your friends to be mindful of that when posting photos and adjust your privacy settings to let you approve photos before they appear on your profile. In addition, keep in mind that the pages you “like” and people you follow also show a 360 degree story of who you are.
3. Set a Google Alert for yourself.
It might seem vain to get an update every time something is published about you online, but you need to know what’s out there. A job interviewer or potential first date is going to Google you, so you should be aware of what they'll see. While you’re at it, set Google Alerts for some of your less tech-savvy family members too, so you can let them know if you see something pop up that might warrant their attention.
4. Be proactive about cleaning up your online reputation.
If there are a few small things that aren’t career-ending, start blogging and including more links in your Twitter bio. Ask your friends to write nice blog posts about you. Create profiles on social media sites such as LinkedIn and Tumblr. By adding more content that you control, you help push bad results further down in Google. If the post or picture truly is career-ending and you have money to throw at the problem, you can turn to a service like Reputation.com to help you out for a hefty, but likely worthwhile, fee.
5. Keep your privates, private.
This is just a general good life lesson, people. It didn’t work for Anthony Weiner and it’s not going to work for you. While I really believe that people shouldn’t be afraid to share their authentic self online, including their hobbies, family life, and passion projects, there are just some things that don’t ever need to be uploaded, ever.
6. Don’t share anything online you wouldn’t want printed on the front page of a newspaper.
It can be so tempting to type a mean, angry rant after a bad customer service experience or when you’re very worked up over something totally unrelated. But wait to post until after you’ve calmed down, and can re-read it with a clear head. Anything you put online lives forever in Google seach history, so think twice.
7. Present a balanced image of yourself online.
Your followers subscribe to your feed because they’re interested in learning more about you. If you work, share some business news and some posts about your hobbies or family life. If you’re a musician, don’t blast your followers every time you have a gig. Try to strike a balance of personal and promotional posts. you can share pictures of your kids, but mix it up with other articles that interest you. By sharing all aspects of your personality online, your friends will get a good mix of what they came to see– the whole you.
8. Be aware of national culture.
By this, I mean that if there is a major breaking news event, maybe refrain from posting about your love life or some other unrelated status. Stay on top of what’s going on in the nation and the world and reflect that through what you post. You don’t want to be labeled as insensitive because you posted the wrong thing at the wrong time.