Online reputation matters but a few blemishes don’t spell disaster

"Paris Tuileries Garden Facepalm statue" by Alex E. Proimos

Caïn by Henri Vidal, Tuileries Garden, Paris, 1896.Photo by Alex E. Proimos

by Larry Magid

A lot of people worry about how their social network posts will affect their future. Will something stop them from getting into college, or perhaps keep them from getting their dream job? Your online reputation does matter, but if there are some blemishes, it’s not the end of the world.

Last year, Challenger Gray & Christmas, a Chicago-based outplacement service conducted a survey of 100 human resource executives and found that while 60% said that they either always or frequently check candidates’ social media activity, only 6% said that social media activity has a significant impact on hiring decisions.

Likewise, a study conducted by Kaplan last year found that 35% of college admissions officers have looked at an applicant’s social media posts to learn more about them but only 16% of those reported finding anything that would negatively impact an applicant’s chances.

“There’s no doubt social media has become increasingly a part of the admissions process, but students should recognize that it still plays only a peripheral role,” said Christine Brown, executive director of K12 and college prep programs for Kaplan Test Prep. She called applicants’ online personas “a wild card in the admissions process.”

Still, it’s a good idea to put your best foot forward online. Posting things that could embarrass you or having negative things posted about you certainly can’t help you out in life and could have some negative impact on work, school or personal relationships.

I often “Google” people who I just met or plan to meet and check out online profiles of people who I think I’m going to work with and I’ve been told by several people that they’ve looked me up online.

While you can control what you post, you may not have complete control over what people post about you. If there is something negative about you that’s been published in a newspaper or a blog you can certainly ask that it be taken down, but unless you can make a legal case that it’s libel, the poster generally has no obligation to do so – unless you live in Europe.

Europe’s highest court last year ruled that search engines must respond to requests to remove links to certain content about people if it’s harmful, irrelevant or no longer relevant, even if it’s true. But that ruling does not apply to the U.S. or countries outside Europe. Consumer Watchdog, a Santa Monica-based consumer organization is campaigning to apply it in the United States but it’s not likely to take hold here because of potential challenges from free speech advocates.

Still, there are things you can do to improve your online reputation.

Take a social media inventory

Start with taking an inventory of what you’ve posted in social media and if it’s something you’d rather not be seen, just delete it. All the major services allow you to delete your own content. Facebook even has a tool called the Activity Log that lets you quickly review everything you’ve posted. You get to it by clicking the little down arrow near the top right corner of any Facebook page. Twitter lets you search for your own tweets.

If someone else has posted something you’re not happy with, consider asking them to take it down. Many will. Facebook has a special “social reporting tool” that can help.

Drown out the bad with the good

You may not be able to remove everything so the best way to make sure people don’t see or pay too much attention to negative content is to flood the Web with positive material about yourself. That doesn’t mean you should make things up (that’s never a good idea) but you can post relevant material about yourself or simply blog and post to social media so that any searches on you are likely to uncover the good stuff which might, hopefully, drown out anything you’re not proud of. And even if people do see something that might concern them, if they see a lot of positive material from or about you, it’s likely that will affect their opinion as much or more as the negative.