The movie “Avatar” was a box office smash. I wonder how many of us would like to realize that fantasy of inhabiting a body totally different from our human one. Though all of this is science fiction, avatars do exist. We have been creating them in cyberspace since the birth of the internet. Every social networking profile we create, every blog we author, every website we create, produces a persona slightly removed from our living, breathing one.
In the movie our hero believes that he can function as this other alien individual, and keep his feelings and ethics suppressed. How wrong he is! As a writer I have always been fascinated by how, solely through the use of words, one can create a totally different identity. That is, as long as no one meets you in the flesh!
In the real world we are coached to put our best face forward, to dress and talk as we wish the world to perceive us. Fortunately, communications happen in real time with subtle clues that give feedback, and modifications can sometimes be made on the spot (or at least apologies for a foot in the mouth comment!) Not so online. We blog, reply to blog postings, set up “profiles” in Linkedin, Facebook, post questions or replies on forums/bulletin boards, write letters to editors, send out press releases, and create “bios” on our websites….what picture do all of these words in cyberspace paint? In the digital world you are what you write and the words that you used to build your “avatar” in cyberspace can come back to haunt you.
Some of these words you carefully crafted with an image in mind but they don’t really resemble the true you/brand/business (and you thought no one would ever find out!). Others are words you posted in the heat of “passion” as replies to what someone else said. And then there are the insidious words, words you wrote somewhere, anywhere, that find their way into cyberspace without your permission. Lastly, there are words others have written about you that aren’t true.
Is it possible to get control of your cyberspace image? Yes, and here are 8 rules to help you control your “Avatar”:
Rule #1: You can only control what you post on your websites and profiles. Everything else can be edited, quoted out of context or impossible to remove.
Rule # 2: Knowledge empowers. Find out what cyberspace is saying about you. Google yourself at least once a month. Do a search on your name (and variations of it i.e. with a middle initial), a search on your business (Or employer along with your name).
Rule # 3: Go beyond Google results. Once you’ve got the search list, click on all the links. Even what looks obviously as something you posted. Sometimes your words might be as you wrote them but are on a website you really don’t want to be associated with.
Rule # 4: Accept that some of the hits will puzzle you. I had this happen when my name appeared on a link to a porn site. Yes, a porn site! I clicked through and read the text (ugh), did a page search for my name (didn’t come up), checked other pages (disgusting), and even looked at the html source. My name was nowhere! This has happened numerous times (only once porn) so I am clueless as to where the Google bots found it. But at least I know it was in the search list and would be able to defend myself if anyone brought this up.
Rule # 5: If you can’t edit or delete the information, be prepared to defend it. This is especially true of negative stories in the press, which can be corrected if proven inaccurate but will rarely be removed. However, do try to get your words removed if possible. Sometimes, a webmaster will comply. Most times not. If it’s just an inaccuracy, well, as I said in rule # 2: Knowledge empowers. You know it exists. If it is slanderous, could jeopardize a client or employer relationship, get tough. Threaten a law suite.
Rule # 6: Don’t trust websites that say they can unearth information about you…for a price. The major search engines will come up with 99% of your cyberspace existence. The others either will give you information from the printed world i.e. motor vehicle, police records, which is not your goal here or they are just scamming you into giving them money.
Rule #7: Keep tabs on your cyberspace self. Establish Google Alerts for your name and any of the terms you would check. As Google finds new information with those terms posted on the Web, you will receive an e-mail or RSS feed.
Rule #8: Be aware. Now that you know what is out there and how it can be mangled, be conscious of every word you post online.