Protecting Your Professional Identity, Part Two: What Your “Friends” Can Do to You

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the importance of protecting your professional identity as early as possible—for potential law school applicants, that means that you don’t start managing your online profile (including Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, what’s available about you from search engines, what e-mails you send, etc.) when you apply for law school or a job after law school.  You start now. 

One of the comments on that post was from a woman who asked (reasonably enough) whether it was enough to be careful about whom you “friend” on Facebook, link to on LinkedIn and so on.  I answered that, although it helps, I didn’t think it was enough—damaging information has a way of making its way through cyberspace and, once it’s out, it’s hard to get it removed.

As if on cue, The New York Times Sunday Magazine this week describes a horrifying (but not uncommon) posting of compromising photos of a young woman.  The pictures were apparently taken by a former boyfriend, who denies posting them on the internet but admits to having distributed them to several (I’d guess more) of his friends, one or more of whom put the pictures up for all to see.  Worse, the victim succeeded in having them removed from a site once, only to see them reappear several months later.

The Times article focused on defensive strategies and legal remedies even though, in this woman’s case, those efforts were mostly unsuccessful (and in cyberspace, the distance between “mostly” and “completely” unsuccessful is very short).  Those I know who deal more in this world than I do believe that a better defense includes a powerful offense—a hard-nosed offense often gets results.  But any strategy—even if it works—is time-consuming, potentially expensive, uncertain and, worst of all, emotionally exhausting.  In the case of the subject of the Times article, she will have to grow to accept that any time she takes a job, certain of her colleagues may know things about her that are painful for her—and any time she doesn’t get a job, or has a relationship that doesn’t work out as well as she’d hoped, she’ll wonder if that one slip is the reason.  That’s an emotional price that is never worth paying.

The best defense is to have nothing to defend against.  And that gets back to the point I and another commenter originally made: just don’t do anything that’s potentially damaging to your professional reputation.  Don’t send e-mails or tweet things that you would be uncomfortable with the whole world seeing, don’t allow pictures of yourself to be taken that could embarrass you, etc.  I know that’s more vigilance than most people (including me) want to show on a carefree Saturday night or in the privacy of your own home.  But it’s better than spending months or years slogging to erase what’s out there and continually monitoring to make sure it hasn’t reappeared.

It doesn’t matter whether the damaging content is exchanged with a friend (and by “friend,” I mean a real friend, not a Facebook friend).  Especially if you’re younger, your friends now won’t always be your friends—people grow apart and some fall out with each other.  The last thing you need is for someone who’s no longer your friend to control material that can hurt you.  Equally important, your friends also have friends who aren’t your friends at all, so that even without any malicious intent, things can leak out—and once they’ve leaked, it’s very hard to put the genie (or the picture or e-mail) back in the bottle.  And it’s costly (emotionally and financially) to have to do it, even if you can.  All it takes is one moment of poor judgment even among the well-intentioned, and you have a problem that will follow you for a very long time.

The world of cyberspace is just different than the world even 15 years ago.  Then, unless you were a public figure, an off-color or embarrassing comment or event had a limited shelf life.  There might be a little discomfort but it was short-term and generally contained within a narrow circle of people.  Not anymore.  It’s easy to send (in anger or otherwise) things anywhere and everywhere, for everyone to see them with little effort, and the net is a permanent record.  Nothing is certain to disappear.  The best strategy for your professional life (and your personal happiness) is to do the best you can to make sure that anything that might appear is something you’re comfortable with.  That doesn’t stop just flat-out lies, of course, but at least you can deal with those as lies, not as factually accurate (though distorted) presentations of who you are.

~ by Kyle Pasewark at Advise-in Solutions on April 26, 2011.

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