My top ten pieces of advice for looking after your web shadow

A while ago I did a video for the Insititute of Chartered Accountants called “12 Golden Rules for Online Personal Reputation Management“.

I really enjoyed it, and played with the idea for a bit, then decided to write a book about the subject. It’s called Web Shadows and will be finished any day now * ahem *. The paper (yes, paper) version will be out in March 2010

It’s a book for my friends who aren’t totally obsessed with the web and social media, but do have a creeping awareness that what is said about them online matters and that they maybe need to look after their personal reputation a little.

Headlines like Office worker sacked for branding work boring on Facebook in the Telegraph and surveys that say 45% of employers vet job candidates on social networks make them think that even more.

If you take my iCrossing e-book Brands in Networks, I guess Web Shadows will be People in Networks. But that would spell PIN, and anyway I get told off for talking about networks too much, so Web Shadows it almost certainly is.

Anyway, here’s my top ten pieces of advice as they stand today. If you let me know what you think I’d be very grateful:

1 Don’t think of online as another world: The web’s more like a layer over the world we live in, not a “cyberspace” that only geeks live in. It’s part of our lives. The more we think of it as part of the world we live in, the better we will be at using it and looking after ourselves in relation to our online presence.

2 Check your Google shadow (and keep checking it): make sure you can see what others see when they look for you online, wether that’s Google, Facebook, LinkedIn or whatever. (Jeff Jarvis’s Google shadow phrase is what got me to “web shadows” as a title for the book.)

3 Be the world’s leading source of information about yourself: Ideally you want people to find your website, or cluster of social network profiles before they find anything else.

4 Understand networks (and which networks are important to you): Explore the online world around you. Which spaces matter to people that matter to you: employers, colleagues, friends, etc. It doesn’t hurt to start to understand network theory 101. Principles like “every node that joins the network doubles its value” help you to feel less like a supplicant and more like a network citizen. A part of it, not a passive. An owner among owners of a shared space, with rights – and responsibilities to the network.

5 Learn “crap detection” skills: One of Howard Rheingold’s four digital literacies, “crap detection” (the phrase comes from Hemingway) is about being a critical user of the web. Spotting the scams, attention tricks, the bahaviours that means that someone you have met online isn’t a person, or is one you need to stay away from. It’s part experience and part knowing how to use the network technically to understand – sometimes literally – where someone is coming from.

6 Be useful to your networks: You don’t need to turn into a pain-in-the-whatever professional networking douche to be successful in looking after your web shadow. Be yourself. Make the most of the things that you do – put your presentations and articles from the newsletter on SlideShare, bookmark interesting things you find on Delicious, maybe try out blogging even. once

7 Think about private and public: The web is a public place. You’re going to need to think about the dividing lines between your professional self online and your private self – where are they going to be? Get to know the privacy settings on Facebook for starters… And don’t forget to tell your family about them too.

8 Remember: you’re always on the (permanent) record online: “You’re never off the record,” we used to tell clients when I worked in PR. It’s true all the time when we’re online now. Don’t say anything you might regret later. If you are angry: calm down. Been drinking? Sober up or shut the web connection down. And the record may be permanent, like a digital tattoo.

9 Get a thicker skin: So you’re always on the record – so what? Everyone else is too. You’re going to make mistakes, get into arguments, look a bit foolish sometimes. The alternative is being a digital hermit, which… well… if you want to, I suppose.

10 Make it work for you: So we have had email addiction, SMS addiction and now, if you want to, you can become a social web addict. Or you can learn how the social web works and use it to enhance your life. Articles and posts like this one are good while you’re learning the tools’ basics – then you need to make your own mind up about how it should work for you.

9 responses to “My top ten pieces of advice for looking after your web shadow”

  1. All sound advice Antony – the web is the ‘real world’ these days, and you are ostensibly what you do. I think the problem some will have adjusting to this idea is that the internet has been a place where anonymity has been easy, it’s been a place to escape from oneself, hence the proliferation of handles, nicknames etc. that people enjoy hiding behind, and use to explore different aspects of their own self as they develop new interests, having access to more information than ever before presenting near infinite opportunities for niche interests and meeting like-minded people.

    I think the point here is that your online reputation is about ‘owning’ your name online – linking content you create to the words that define you as a person in the offline world is the key. You show an innate awareness of this, and buying your own domain name (such as and linking it to your profiles on social networks, will give you a great head start. I wonder if the web will make people choose more unique ‘real world’ names in the future, to make this easier? I, for example, share a name with a man who holds the world record for the longest bout of hiccups in history (14 years), so maintaining my ‘namespace’ is more of a challenge!

    Celebrities in the media spotlight are already aware of this, cultivating a favourable ‘shadow’ for their unique names is something they pay people to do already. I’m sure politicians and prominent business people might start to do the same.

    The skills relevant to this new discipline might be new, but the mechanisms are not – it’s a longstanding and commonly accepted truth that ‘networking’ is a valuable skill – the links between people you know are essential in business, and maintaining a favourable ‘social circle’ (a network) is a skill that we all have as inherently social beings.

    The private vs public issue is one I struggle with, but I think we all have to accept that in the C.21st, in a digitally connected world, if you want something to be private then you will be forced to think about why this is the case – are you trying to hide a part of yourself that you’re uncomfortable with. Perhaps more public lives will lead online reputation to becoming therapy for us all ;)

    As you say, we’re all human and indiscretions are a part of life, so be thick-skinned. The worry of course is that once entire lives are digitised (as pictures on facebook, emotional twitter status updates, online CVs etc. become commonplace) it will become easy to craft a story about someone that shows them in whatever light the author choses. Treat ‘journalism’ based solely on social network tidbits with skepticism.

  2. All good stuff Antony. Thanks.

    I particularly like ‘crap detection’ as a skill. I think it probably needs to be extended to being a personal filter (not you of course). I watch a lot of bloggers shoveling the stuff out, and losing track of the fact that they actually have an audience.

    It’s not helped by the current Twitter trend of ‘orphaned thoughts’. With no really effective threading or context setting, so much of the stuff you get on Twitter is like cryptic crossword clues, shovelled into the ether with no regard for the medium or audience.

    However, I think the number one piece of advice for newbies is really as Charles says that the internet *is* the real world. Same mores. Same consequences. If you wouldn’t be prepared to say it to someone’s face, don’t try and say it to them via @ reply on Twitter. Even if they’re a million miles away from you physically.

    The other element that I think often gets forgotten is that social groups online may be disparate but they’re often not very diverse. More so than offline social groups, which tend to have at least a degree of accident in their formation (where people live, work etc), online groups can be more along the cult model – what is tolerated can be quite narrow. Perhaps its a good thing, but the communities you are in online often have stronger rules and etiquette than they first appear. So the danger is in forgetting that these groups are a particular subset of all opinion, and their desire to have you as a member may be subject to adhering to certain beliefs. So be diverse yourself, don’t rely on online groups to do it for you.

  3. There’s been a lot written about personal brands online but its still a discussion amongst web/marketing types.

    The key in simplifying it is to remember this is about ‘social’ media. There are different aspects of social, different elements of professionalism are required but always remember this is out in the open and anyone could be walking past – your boss, your Mum or the police.

    The other side of the equation is everyone else adjusting to how we react when we see a side to someone that we’d not seen before or isn’t part of the role that we normally interact with them on. There’s certain taste and decency thresholds that you have about someone you employ but don’t be shocked if you see them letting their hair down with their friends on a saturday night.

    You shouldn’t be following them into nightclubs and you probably shouldn’t be looking at all their Facebok pics. It won’t do either of you any good:)

  4. Great post Antony

    Nice to get a sneak preview of the book and the 10 advice pieces will be a big help for those that want to understand how reputation works on the web, as well as those that have been working on their own reputation for many years. I’ll certainly be pointing my clients in this direction.

    Overall, I agree with the points already raised in the comments, in that conversations online mirror those offline. Furthermore, there should be no real fear factor to conversing online as the rules are the same as in the offline world, be honest, open and yourself, but listen first before jumping in.

    I believe it was Hugh MacLeod that said: ‘If you talked to people the way adverts do, you wouldn’t have any friends’ and this is excellent advice for conversing and building a conversation online.

  5. Good stuff as ever, Antony.

    If I were allowed to add a number 11, it would be “Learn to Stop Worrying and Love the Web”. I have been ‘on’ the Internet since it was CiX and Compuserve, and it’s only when *I* decided to make my online identity transparent that anyone was able to connect what I was saying online with my RL identity.

  6. Mark H. makes a good point about content being out in the open. The other aspect of this is that the content stays around long after you’ve posted it. Some stuff can be deleted, but generally you leave behind you a trail of content in the way that, say, a foolish comment to your friends often is quickly forgotten.

  7. Thanks everyone for your comments. They are very, very useful indeed in qualifying and challenging some of the things I have been thinking about.

  8. […] Antony Mayfield, Senior Vice President, Social Media, bei iCrossing UK, einer Digital Marketing Agentur, hat sich mit diesem Thema auseinander gesetzt und seine Ergebnisse in einem Buch zusammengefasst. In “Me and My Web Shadow” erklärt er nicht nur das Social Web, sondern erklärt, wie man diesen Schatten finden und managen kann. Konkrete Handlungsweisen machen verständlich, wie man sich nicht nur geschäftlich und privat im Netz schützen, sondern auch die gebotenen Möglichkeiten ausschöpfen kann. […]

  9. […] Instead of just allowing the web to dictate how we are seen, why not invest a little time to be the main source of information that is published about us on the web? To find out more have a look at Antony’s top ten must have pieces of advice for looking after your web shadow. […]

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