Ever since the pandemic began, our lives have shifted increasingly online. And entire careers could hinge on the impact of one’s digital footprint. How, exactly, does this matter? And what can you do to improve the situation concerning your data and career?
The price of online activity
Your digital footprint consists of all the data that is generated by your online activities. The most obvious example would be social media interactions. Any posts you’ve written or shared, as well as visual content, will quickly turn up in a search.
This extends across all platforms, including any personal websites or blogs you might have set up independent of the likes of Facebook or Instagram. Content on the web is always being indexed by search engines and available indefinitely. In the UK and many parts of the EU, solicitors can have this taken down on the grounds of right-to-be-forgotten laws. But this is not a standard in every country.
Also, your digital footprint includes data about your online behavior that’s tracked passively. Through the means of cookies, countless websites can monitor certain aspects of your activity, which can then be shared with others.
It might seem like a small price to pay in exchange for the convenience of having a frequently-visited website remember details such as your preferences or login information. But when aggregated, this data paints a surprisingly accurate picture of your behavior. It’s used by marketers to profile you and send targeted ads your way through affiliate websites.
Painting a picture of you
Of course, not all employers have potential access to that sort of data about you (unless you plan on working for Facebook or Google). Many people would find it a bit unsettling to know how much information can be unearthed about them by anybody through a simple online search.
Search for your name on social media or Google, and see what comes up. All of the content you’ve posted or shared under public visibility rules will be there. It might also be posts that mention or tag you, such as events you’ve attended.
Any prospective employer can comb through the internet and gather enough information to piece together a good picture of who you are. That includes your interests, circle of friends and colleagues, previous work experience, affiliations in other organizations, and even old school projects or the like.
A growing and disturbing trend
You might object that such information can only be incomplete and present a skewed picture of who you are. And that’s precisely why it’s a problem; you can be judged even before you get the chance to make an impression in person.
Even before the outbreak of COVID-19, employers and recruiters had already been scouring social media networks and search engines for data regarding candidates. In the age of remote work, that becomes a far more urgent concern.
Companies will look to hire more people without ever meeting them in a face-to-face interview. Successful remote working relationships require trust. The increased need to know more about you will be used as a justification to dig up whatever information they can find about you online.
At the same time, our general shift towards increased online activity has drawn the attention of cyber-criminals. You might feel uncomfortable enough having your data in the hands of marketers, but being a potential target of hackers is another matter.
Legal protection of our rights to online data privacy is spotty at best. The issue is mired in layers of complications, making it difficult to prove that an employer’s hiring decisions are influenced by any profiling work they have undertaken.
For now, your best recourse is to start taking steps towards full ownership of your digital footprint. Review all the content about you from the lens of your career; what contributes to an acceptable, professional image?
Start to curate that information. Set unwanted posts or entire accounts to private, or delete them altogether. You can request other users to remove you from their tags or submit similar requests to social media platforms to have inappropriate content taken down.
Not everything out there can be deleted, however. So it’s vital to offset any potential negative image with a new one. If you feel the need to show that you’re a different person from what an online search might uncover, you can build up a professional website or profile. Use it as an anchor to present yourself in the light you desire, with the activities, interests, networks, and accomplishments that you’d want a prospective employer to know about.