Cleansing Your Digital Shadow: A Nearly Impossible Task

A few months ago I got an e-mail from a woman about a story I'd written nearly three years ago. To protect her privacy I'll call her Samantha Sugarlips.

In that story, which I'd written for my somewhat more sarcastic blog, I mocked this woman for posting photos and other personal information to Facebook, then turning around and suing the social network for allowing other people to view them. At the time it seemed like nothing more than a desperate attempt to generate publicity for Samantha, an aspiring actress, especially given the fact that she had posted similar photos to her own Web site as well as to MySpace. (As it turns out, the real story is quite different -- but that's a topic for another time.)

My blog post was hardly the only one to talk about the suit, but I had a bit of fun at her expense and included some of the photos available on her other pages. Those photos, with links to my story, kept showing up in Google Images whenever anyone searched on her real name. Now Samantha was writing to me to ask if I would please remove that post, as she was embarking on a new career and my story could prove embarrassing if not outright damaging to her reputation. (See also "How to Protect Your Professional Reputation on Facebook Timeline.")

I thought about this for a bit before agreeing. If I had written a straight news story, and if Samantha had been a public figure, I probably would have declined. There's a long history of people in power trying to erase or distort the past, and that's not something I can endorse. That's one reason why no amount of gentle persuasion is likely to convince a real news site to remove those stories about her. But this was a silly story that was well past its pull date and of no importance to anyone but Samantha -- and it seemed quite important to her.

I compromised by leaving the story in place but redacting her name where it appeared. I replaced most of her photos with pictures of adorable kittens. I removed any tags that included her name and changed the filename for the one photo I kept of her where I had obscured her features. I submitted a request to Google asking them to remove the old page from its cache and created a new URL for the redacted story. I told Samantha that it would be a while but eventually Google would drop the story featuring her name and photo from its cache and replace it with the redacted one. I thought my work was done.

I was wrong.

Recently Samantha wrote to me again, telling me she had Googled her name and found an unredacted copy of my story on a very popular Web site. And of course she had -- I had posted it there, in order to drive traffic, and then totally forgotten about it. Oops. I wrote to that site and explained the situation. Within an hour they had removed it. (Though it's still in Google's cache as I write this.)

But Samantha still wasn't out of the woods. Searching for her name and the name of my site produced a number of other hits that were largely out of my -- and her -- control. For example, I had left a comment on a popular tech blog linking back to my original story. I tried to remove that comment recently and could not, because that blog had dumped its old commenting system in favor of Facebook more than a year ago. A Google search on Samantha's real name and the name of my other blog still points to the redacted story, even though her name cannot be found there, most probably because of this link and others like it.

Among the others:

  • Some bot-driven online dictionary had a "definition" for her real first name and used the title of my story as part of that definition.

  • A tech news publication in the IDG family linked to that story and quoted a piece of it containing Samantha’s last name.

  • Someone in Yahoo Answers had linked to the original photo of Samantha on my blog in response to a question about male strippers. The link no longer worked, but it still had her name in it.

  • A XXX image-sharing site featuring some truly nasty male enlargement ads had scraped one of the original images of Samantha's G-rated Facebook profile that I had captured and reposted it for reasons unknown. (I e-mailed the address on the DNS record for this site, asking for that image to be removed; 12 hours later it was gone. Even I am amazed at that.)

The good news is that Samantha is a smart cookie. She knew that the best way to bury bad news online is to replace it with good news. So over the last two years she created a ton of profile pages on social sites like Flickr, Vimeo, YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIn, Tumblr, and, to name a few, and managed to get them ranked higher by Google than the news stories about her unfortunate lawsuit.

How did she manage that? By continually creating new content and uploading it to each of those sites. This is something companies like charge megabucks to do for people whose online reputations are in tatters. Samantha was doing it all on her own.

The other smart thing Samantha did was ask politely. Many people in her situation would have been angry and made demands, or worse. I've had a few lawyer threats thrown at me lately, and I can tell you that's probably the worst thing you can do to a journalist -- 99 percent of the time it backfires. Samantha's request was so simple and reasonable it was hard to ignore. Had she come at me with guns blazing, I might not have been so willing to accommodate her.

The lesson here? Once something sticks to the Web it's very hard to get it unstuck, thanks in large part to bots and other algorithms that operate independently from humans. Things take on a life of their own. And though Samantha did better than most at cleaning up what was a relatively small mess, she couldn't get to all of it.

Fortunately this incident has not impacted her new career, and with luck it never will.

It's a cliche, but it still bears repeating: Before you do anything in the public arena, think long and hard about how your activities are going to play out on the Web. Don't post anything stupid or do anything silly online just for attention -- and don't let your friends catch you in the act and share it with the world, either. One day it could come back to bite you. And if you don't believe me, just ask Samantha.

Got a question about social media? TY4NS blogger Dan Tynanmay have the answer (and if not, he’ll make something up). Visit his snarky, occasionally NSFW blog eSarcasmor follow him on Twitter: @tynanwrites. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-to’s, follow ITworld on Twitterand Facebook.

Now read this:

Facebook's 'man in the middle' attack on our data

Making Facebook private won't protect you

Google’s personalized search results are way too personal

This story, "Cleansing Your Digital Shadow: A Nearly Impossible Task" was originally published by ITworld.

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