Internet Tips: Safeguard Your Reputation While Socially Networking

Social networks
Illustration: Edwin Fotheringham
Teenagers have long been the vanguard of popular culture, which explains why so many adults are only now taking a close look at the social-network sites that young folks have been flocking to in recent years. The MySpace personal Web page service boasts more than 90 million accounts, primarily registered by teens. Similarly, college students account for most of the 7.5 million users of Facebook, though the service is expanding to include other schools, companies, and geographical regions.

Social networks are far from the sole province of youngsters, however. Services such as LinkedIn and Ryze have a clear business focus. But whether for work, fun, or a combination of the two, it's vital that you maintain strict control over your various online personae.

Turning traditionally private pursuits into public events often comes back to haunt online revelers. Just as companies create a corporate image that conveys their core purpose and virtues, individuals project an online image through social networking sites, blogs, e-mail, photo and video sharing, and other online activities. Your image can have an immediate impact on how friends, family, strangers, and prospective employers view you. You want to express your individuality, but you also want to get hired. By following the proper steps, you accomplish both.

Your Online Demeanor

First, consider your online image: Does your blog, MySpace, or Facebook page delve into areas that you may not want to have to explain later on? (Sex-, drug-, and booze-related topics, for example, could come back to haunt their authors.) Does your personal e-mail address contain unprofessional or suggestive terms? Thanks to Google's cache and the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine (see Figure 1

Figure 1: Personal pages remain in the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine long after they're deleted.
), some of the online tracks people leave today (even as a lark) will remain fresh for decades to come.

Profiles on sites like MySpace, Facebook, and even Friendster probably won't show up in a search engine query, but they will appear when members of those services track you down. So expect current and future employers, paramours, and other gumshoes to be determined enough to find your online contributions. Remove potentially embarrassing photos and posts to make your wild years less likely to come back and haunt you.

Go Incognito

Even a stellar online image deserves privacy, and fortunately MySpace and most other social-networking sites give you quite a bit of control over who can and can't see and find your posts. To hide your MySpace page from anyone who's not already a MySpace friend, click Account Settings on your main page, and choose Change Settings next to 'Privacy Settings.' Check Require email or last name to add me as a friend under My Privacy Settings to prevent people who don't know you from trying to add you as a friend, and select My Friends Only under 'Who Can View My Full Profile.' Click the Change Settings button to enable the changes (see Figure 2

Figure 2: Keep MySpace strangers at bay by restricting potential contacts to your friends and your real-world acquaintances.
).

Visitors to your MySpace page will see only your photo, display name, and location. Replace these with versions that do not reveal your identity, and you'll be nearly anonymous except to people you approve as MySpace friends (see Figure 3

Figure 3: Go incognito online by substituting fictitious data for all potentially identifying real-world information about yourself on your MySpace profile.
).

To prevent others from knowing you even have a MySpace account, make sure that your real name doesn't appear in the First Name and Last Name search fields under your profile's Name section, nor in your MySpace User Name/URL (such as 'www.myspace.com/scottspanbauer'). You can't alter a User Name/URL once you've created it, so your only option in that situation is to cancel the account (an option included under Account Settings) and then create a new one.

Keep Your Online Profiles Private

By default, the only people who can view your Facebook profile are members of your school, region, or business network (similar settings are available in Friendster). As with MySpace, you can control who is able to access your Facebook page.

For a summary of who can see what about you, log in to your Facebook account and click My Privacy. Choose Edit Settings beneath a profile to indicate what content the network's members can access. You can prevent anyone--except people already accepted as friends--from seeing your profile at all; they'll see only your name and picture. Alternatively, you can allow friends of friends to see it, or you can open it to anyone in the network. Other options let you control who sees your e-mail and home addresses, phone numbers, interest groups, courses, visitor comments, and other individual profile elements (see Figure 4

Figure 4: Privatize your Facebook, and limit contact to friends, fellow students, and coworkers, by taking advantage of the site's various privacy settings.
).

Enter home addresses, phone numbers, and other sensitive information only when necessary. The more identity thieves, stalkers, and other criminals can find out about you online, the easier they will find it to locate you--so avoid listing your real city, age, and other vital stats.

Teach Kids Not to Share

Keeping personal information private is especially crucial for teens. Personal references scattered around a teenager's MySpace page could help a predator lure the youngster into a face-to-face meeting. Fortunately, MySpace kids are creative about obfuscating their online particulars. MySpace doesn't request or set aside room for members' addresses and phone numbers; nobody, regardless of age, should post such information on a blog or social network. MySpace does ask members for their location and age, but almost none of my middle-school son's friends report their true location, instead listing their home towns as "Hippietown, Uzbekistan," "Antarctica, Zimbabwe," and other unlikely burgs. This doesn't interfere with the social interaction they signed up for.

Officially, MySpace prohibits anyone under the age of 14 from creating an account, and it forbids anyone 18 or older from viewing the profiles of anyone 17 or younger. In addition, MySpace now has a setting that allows 14- and 15-year-olds to block other members from seeing their sites. But there's no way to confirm age online: My son and his friends are mostly 12 or 13 years old, but they often list their ages as 100. And nothing prevents a 40-year-old from creating an account as a 14-year-old. So listing yourself as 14, 40, or 84 doesn't prove anything.

Parenting, Please

Given the wide-open nature of the medium, what should parents do to provide protection and guidance for their MySpace-loving teens? Start with good communication. I offered general advice on how to talk to kids about online safety in last October's Internet Tips column. Explain your family's values and expectations regarding sexuality and violence online. If you can talk with your children about difficult subjects like sex--and especially if they feel comfortable talking about these topics with you--offering guidance in their online activities will be easier.

If you end up in a battle with your child over MySpace, forget about it--you've already lost. You can reject, forbid, and banish all you want, but a teen who is set on using MySpace will do so, regardless of whether you have a computer in the house.

If your child uses a computer at home, I recommend keeping it out in the open. You may also want to install some of the monitoring and filtering tools I described last October. It's up to you to decide what level of autonomy you want to offer your child online. At the hands-off extreme, you could simply cross your fingers and hope that everything works out. At the high-surveillance extreme, you could create your own MySpace account and use it to keep tabs on your child's page and friends (though you won't see any of the e-mail they send and receive). Razorcom's ad-supported MyspaceWatch monitors one MySpace profile of your choice for you; the service visits the monitored profile twice a day and sends you a report via e-mail detailing log-ins, changes, and as many as 25 friends. For $6 per month, MyspaceWatch Pro monitors up to five profiles and 100 friends four times a day.

In my judgment, this invasive level of monitoring is justified only if you have already tried just about everything else and are convinced your child's MySpace usage constitutes a serious problem. In our family, we were lucky--our son first asked us if he could have a MySpace account. We agreed, provided that he would allow us to monitor it occasionally (including a glance at his e-mail messages). The result of this arrangement is that we know who he's talking to and what kinds of conversations are going on. Because we live in a small town and are interested in his day-to-day activities, we already know most of his MySpace friends offline. This trust-but-verify system has reassured us that our son is using MySpace responsibly; and as a result, over time, we've been willing to relax our vigilance and give him a little more privacy.

At the very least, ask your child to use MySpace's privacy features (as described above) to block friendship requests from strangers and to exclude people who aren't friends from viewing his or her MySpace profile. Parents and children should browse the excellent "Don't Believe the Type" Web site created by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children for tips and information on avoiding online predators. The FBI publication "A Parent's Guide to Internet Safety", which the agency says is based on information received from actual child victims and predator sting operations, is another good resource.

Browse Like You Used To

Remember when the Web was young? As the Internet becomes the venue of mundane tasks like banking, e-mail, and socializing, new online discoveries occur less frequently. Sometimes it seems as if the old magic is gone. The StumbleUpon toolbar for Firefox and IE brings back the wonder of the new by serving up fascinating Web sites you wouldn't have found otherwise. After specifying your areas of interest, you simply click the Stumble button whenever you feel understimulated, and you'll embark on a new Internet tangent. You can recommend sites you find rewarding to the StumbleUpon community by clicking the toolbar's 'I like it!' button. Browse to Firefox Add-ons: StumbleUpon to get the Firefox toolbar, and to StumbleUpon for the IE version.

Send your questions and tips to nettips@spanbauer.com. We pay $50 for published items. Scott Spanbauer is a contributing editor for PC World.

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