What is a Digital Footprint?
Nowadays everyone is online, which means that your digital footprint is more important than ever. Your digital footprint comprises your digital identity (the way that you are presented online) and all your online activity. This includes (but is not limited to) your social media accounts, comments you have left on websites, the people that you are connected with and interact with online and even your online passport details. As Alastair Patterson said at the 2013 Wired Money event: "it's now possible to have a digital footprint before you're born, before you've even taken actual footsteps" with ultrasound photos cropping up on social media sites being an increasingly common occurrence.
After examining my own digital identity and digital footprint, I discovered that my online identity is extremely easily discoverable with a simple Google search. One reason, perhaps, for my large digital footprint is that I would class myself as a digital e-mersive; an internet culture whereby the internet users take part in digital activity in most aspects of their life and are completely comfortable and at home in the online world (Dutton, Blank & Groselj, 2013). Because of my self-admitted "e-mersive" status, I have profiles and accounts with so many different sites. Throughout my digital life (the time since I first had home access to a computer, aged 10) I have never thought twice about signing up to different sites; I have entered my email address, created a password and thought nothing more of it. Until now; until the dreaded self-Google that brought up almost two full search pages of my countless accounts and profiles. Of course I expected my Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn accounts to appear, but it was the image search results that actually made me stop and think about how much information I readily give out online. The Google image search not only brought up my avatars from my social media accounts, but amongst the pictures of "Ellen Holcombs" and "Mary-Ellen Holcombes" were pictures of my family and friends who are obviously part of my digital identity by association.
A Large Digital Footprint: Good or Bad?
So I had established that I have a rather large, easily discoverable digital footprint; that must be a bad thing right? The answer is: not necessarily. It's true that I don't want every aspect of my home and work life available to anyone at the click of a button, however I'd consider myself to be digitally literate (Gilster, 1997), which I believe to include being able to use privacy settings within sites such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to control who sees what on my profiles. Particularly over the past couple of years, I've thought carefully about what information I allow to be seen by strangers online and posted on social media only what I would be happy for a future employer to see.
My Facebook profile is for personal use only, which means that I am only friends with people that I know in real life. If I take a look at my profile from the perspective of a complete stranger, all I can see is a couple of photos and a couple of "interests" such as music and athletes. I have made sure that my privacy settings only allow friends to see anything that I post meaning that although my Facebook profile is on the first page of Google results when searching my name, it does not give away any personal information apart from my name and what I look like.
On the other hand, although on Twitter you can choose to make your profile private, I chose to keep my account open which enables anyone to see all my previous posts, the accounts that I follow, the accounts that follow me and allows any Twitter user to retweet my posts. This is because I use Twitter for both personal and professional use. I use my account to post content relevant to the career path I wish to take after graduating. I ultimately would like to work in digital marketing, a sector in which having an active digital identity is incredibly important, especially in a world that is creeping towards (almost) total digital immersion. Patti Wilson (2014) (a careers expert and consultant to the LinkedIn CEO) states on her blog that "a blank social media history is going to be a bad social media history" and that soon "your web presence will soon be more valuable than your credit rating". With regards to future employers, this quote shows that it is more worrying to see a blank social media history as the employer could them assume that perhaps your past online activity was so inappropriate that it needed to be deleted, just as a blank credit history is treated in the same way as a bad credit rating.
No Footprint, No Control
When researching the importance of a digital footprint, I cam across an idea that had never even crossed my mind. In his article "when being too private on Facebook can actually be a bad thing", Adam Dachis (2012) suggested that if you aren't active on social media sites and don't regularly post content, your digital identity be created for you through other people's posts. You have no control over the content other people post, therefore if their content is about you and you have no digital activity of your own, then their content becomes your digital identity.
After evaluating my own digital footprint and exploring why the size and nature of your digital footprint matters, I have established that although my digital footprint is easily accessible and my digital identity spans across many different social platforms, that it is not necessarily a bad thing. Providing that you use social media sensibly, keeping your desired audience in mind and managing privacy settings, a large digital footprint can be beneficial, particularly when entering the world of work.
Dachis, A. 2012. When Being Too Private on Facebook Can Actually Be a Bad Thing. LifeHacker Website [online] Available at: http://lifehacker.com/5912382/why-being-too-private-on-facebook-is-actually-a-bad-thing [Last accessed 23/2/14]
Dutton, W.H., Blank, G. & Groselj, D. 2013. Cultures of the Internet: The Internet of Britain. Oxford Internet Survey 2013, Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, Oxford.
Gilster, P. 1997. Digital Literacy, John Wiley & Sons, Canada
Patterson, A via Collins, K. 2013. Monitoring digital footprints to prevent reputation damage and cyber attacks. Wired Technology Website [online] Available at: http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2013-07/01/digital-shadows-alastair-paterson [Last accessed 23/2/14]
Wilson, P. 2014. Having a Bigger One Wins In Digital Footprints. Patti Wilson Blog [online] Available at: http://www.pattiwilson.net/1/post/2014/02/having-a-bigger-one-wins-in-digital-footprints.html [Last accessed 23/2/14]