What Happens Online Stays Online

You finish a fantastic book, and post a review of it on Amazon…

Your favorite blogger posts a blog entry that you disagree with, so you write a rebuttal in the comments section…

You send in a glowing note of thanks for a product you bought, and the company (with your permission) publishes it in their online newsletter…

You get terrible service at a new restaurant downtown, so you add a scathing description of the snooty waiters and bland food to CitySearch…

Your old college roommate hosts a huge birthday bash, and you rave about how drunk you got on your MySpace page…

There’s practically no end to the ways you can publish your opinions online.

And that’s great. It means that you can start a blog or an e-newsletter, and quickly position yourself as an expert in anything… from marketing to tropical fish to grammar and more.

But before you fire up the Internet and start posting away… take a second to reconsider.

The thing you have to remember is this: The Internet may be a palimpsest of conversation, information, advice, and junk. It may be protean and malleable. But it is also pretty permanent.

When you put things on the Internet, they’re there for good. And if you don’t think through what you’re posting, it might turn up years – even decades – later to haunt you. Plus, the Internet makes it easy for users to search through its billions of Web pages. (Some estimates, according to SitePro News, say that there were already 200 billion Web pages in 2006.)

Face it, you’re not as anonymous online as you think!

That means you can post some sexy pictures of yourself online for your long-distance college boyfriend… and find your employees giggling over them in the break room 10 years later.

Or you could get really fired up about the upcoming election and lambaste some of your opponents in a forum… and a potential boss could decide you’re too much of a loose cannon to work in her company.

MaryEllen Tribby, ETR’s Publisher and CEO, regularly performs Google searches on all her prospective employees. She checks MySpace, Facebook, Friendster, and the other social networking sites. And she carefully monitors what other people in the world are saying about people she works with.

If you wanted to work for ETR and you had a MySpace profile full of provocative pictures… lewd conversation… and tales of your drunken escapades… you can be pretty sure that MaryEllen would put your resume in the circular file.

Maybe you’re not concerned about your online reputation. If that’s the case, you’re not alone. A 2007 PEW/Internet and American Life Project survey found that 60 percent of Internet users aren’t worried about how much of their personal information is available online. And 61 percent of adult Internet users don’t feel the need to limit the amount of personal information that others can find about them online.

So you might think that I’m being overcautious. “Hey Suzanne, there’s a delete key on my computer,” you might say. “I can put whatever I want online. I can always erase it later.”

But it’s not as easy as that.

Take, for instance, a good-intentioned ETR reader who sent us a thoughtful e-mail about one of our products. We asked for permission to print her e-mail – with her full name – in an issue of Early to Rise. She graciously gave it.

A few weeks later, she sent us a frustrated e-mail. When she Googled her name, it was coming up in the search results next to the title of another article in that ETR issue. And the title referenced something that this woman was avidly against. The way the search results showed up, there was an implied link between her and the subject matter she opposed.

We understood her frustration. And so we changed her name in the article archived on our site to eliminate that implied link. A few weeks later, Google had re-indexed our site, and her real name no longer appeared in conjunction with the title of the offending article.

But even though we can make small changes to the articles in our archives, we can’t change anything about the ETR issues we’ve e-mailed out to our nearly 400,000 subscribers. So on hundreds of thousands of e-mails, her name is indelibly linked to the subject matter she wants nothing to do with.

And, of course, her words – if not her name – are still online in our archives… and they’re not going anywhere. (By the way, we encourage readers to submit their comments. And we are always happy to use a pseudonym if you’d prefer that your remarks remain anonymous.)

Deleting your profiles from online networking sites isn’t foolproof either. According to The New York Times, “Facebook servers keep copies of the information in those accounts indefinitely.” It took one man about two months to finally get his information removed from Facebook. But even after it was deleted, a reporter was able to access his empty profile and send him an e-mail.

The real key to maintaining your image online is to think about what you post BEFORE you post it.

I’m not saying that you should never post anything online. But keep in mind that just because it’s easy to post something doesn’t mean it’s easy to remove it.

Your reputation is at stake.

And when you go to work for a company… or own your own business… your reputation becomes inextricably connected to that of the business. Which means the reputation of the business is at stake too.

So whenever you’re tempted to submit a comment anywhere online, ask yourself these five questions first:

1. “Would I be okay with my grandmother/little brother/boss reading this?”

2. “Will I feel the same way about this a week from now? A month from now? A year from now?”

3. “Would I be proud to repeat this comment out loud to my friends, family, and coworkers?”

4. “Could this detract from my future credibility in any way?”

5. “Would my company’s customers be offended/miffed/revolted by this?”

If you do end up making an offensive comment on your blog… or starring in an embarrassing YouTube video… or posting something that reflects badly on your business, own up to it. Being forthright and honest about your mistakes will go a long way toward healing any wounds you’ve inflicted on your reputation.

You can also keep track of your online reputation by doing what your boss, potential employers, or customers may be doing: Googling your name regularly. If unflattering results pop up, take steps to remove them (as best you can) from the Web.