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Maintaining your online presence
The Internet has a wide plethora of resources that you can leverage well. Many of these can be accessed passively and anonymously, but for some, you can squeeze a lot more value through active participation. This page lists some general tips for creating and maintaining your online presence to minimize later regret.
- 1 Look respectable
- 2 Privacy
- 3 Join online communities
- 4 Communities to consider joining
- 5 Transferring connections
- 6 Personal website
Choose a good name
Your online handles, including your email address, Facebook URL, Twitter name, or any other online public-facing user identity you have, should preferably be based on your real name. This makes it easy for people to locate you. Preferably do not choose handles that are related to specific political or religious beliefs or cultural icons. Your beliefs may change over time, and in any case, it's not good practice to make your beliefs and affiliations scream out at people every time they visit your profile. Under no circumstances should you use swearwords, exhortations to violence, or controversial cultural terms in your email address or online handles.
Don't post embarrassing photographs
Decide between two options:
- Not posting a photograph at all (this may be suited in the beginning, when you're mostly lurking, and to protect your identity somewhat).
- Posting a photograph that shows your face clearly and well, in a relatively sober expression (i.e., don't "make faces" to the camera).
It's generally unhelpful to post photographs of somebody else for your profile picture, even if that person is a known model or actor and therefore can't be confused with you. Choosing a photo of yourself while drunk or making funny faces to the camera sends a bad impression.
Use decent language, spelling, and grammar
Avoid the use of swear words, derogatory ethnic terms, exhortations to violence, or overtly confrontational language, even in private messages or posts to restricted lists. Unless constrained by space limitations (as in the case of tweets on Twitter) use grammatically correct sentences, proper punctuation, and correct spelling.
Think hard before raising controversial issues
Civil discussion of controversial issues is often admirable. But it should be done with care. Even if your original post is civil, the reactions to it (if you allow comments) could be uncivil. Even if you're not personally hurt by such reactions, these could get you into trouble. Colleges and potential employers generally steer clear of people who get enmeshed in controversies, even if those people aren't objectively at fault.
Anonymity through the use of pseudonyms on some forums may be appropriate. However, the general naming rules apply to pseudonyms: do not choose pseudonyms that are perceived as offensive or insensitive. Choose pseudonyms only on fora where pseudonym use is encouraged, and follow the general naming conventions of the forum.
Do not trust that the use of pseudonyms will be a foolproof guarantee of anonymity. Always write with expectation that some of what you write may later be associated with your real name.
Do not reveal "real-life" information
Avoid revealing the following outside of restricted-access friend lists:
- The names of your family members.
- Your home address.
- Your phone number (keep contact information restricted to an email address and social media accounts).
- The names of employers for part-time or full-time jobs that you are doing (unless the employer gives consent, or your public persona requires you to associate yourself with a particular employer).
- Information explicitly attributed to others that is conveyed by them to you in private fora (online or offline), unless they give you consent.
Basically, your online persona should reveal those parts of you that help people get an idea of what you're thinking about and your opinions on specific issues, but should not be a way for them to track you down or get information about your real-life friends (except if they contact you personally).
Selecting an appropriate audience
There exists a spectrum for sharing information about oneself; i.e. there is no dichotomy of either complete privacy or complete release of information. Consider the gradual increase in visibility in going from keeping one's data local (on one's own hard drive), to keeping data on a cloud service but available only to oneself (so that the service provider, such as Google, can potentially view or use the data), to keeping data on a cloud service but with the ability to invite other authorized users to view the data, to making the data public, but not locatable by search engines, so that effectively only people with the link can view the data (this is, for instance, what GitHub does with its secret gists), to releasing the data publicly and making it locatable by search engines. Additionally, in each case, one has the option of using one's real name or a pseudonym (or, in some cases, staying anonymous). It is important to know, then, that some of the pros and cons of privacy will only apply to a certain part of this spectrum.
In terms of content sharing online, this means that one can attempt to restrict the audience that receives specific content. Since your interests are likely to not overlap completely with that of most people, targeting content to an audience who shares a particular interest will likely mean that (1) they will be happier seeing content that applies to them, and (2) you will receive better feedback on what you post. Restriction of the whole discussion may also mean that people will give you more candid responses.
Concerns about privacy
Privacy on the internet has received a lot of attention over the years, with for instance some, like free software activist Richard Stallman, advising people not to use Facebook on grounds of privacy (among other reasons). See the Quora question "What are the advantages and disadvantages of making information about oneself available online through for example smart phone apps and social media posts?" for more on this topic.
Join online communities
Lurk for a while
Each community has its own rules for engagement. Spend some time reading their formally codified rules, plus more time reading discussions of the sort you eventually intend to participate in. Doing this for a while gives you a sense for what sort of discussions work well and what sort generate controversy. You can then start participating in an informed manner.
Be polite and deferential to begin with, and don't try to "take over" the forum
It's better to err initially in the direction of being deferential and polite. Some concrete tips:
- Avoid participation in flame wars or in threads where there's trolling or trollbaiting.
- Don't make posts too short or too long.
- Don't post too frequently in the beginning.
- If you're uncertain of whether the post is appropriate for the forum, briefly indicate this at the beginning of the post, preemptively apologizing in the event that the post is inappropriate.
- When framing views that you think others might disagree with, preface with "I think ..." or "In my view ..." and end by asking others what they think. Show that you're eager to learn and exchange ideas, rather than just there to preach your views. If the forum penalizes such language, it may not be worth participating in.
- Always disclose conflicts of interest. If you're trying to stay anonymous, then do not post anything linking to work done by you under your real name, because that leaves two unpleasant options: (a) disclosing your identity due to conflict of interest (and defeat the purpose of anonymity), or (b) do not disclose your identity, and violate the conflict of interest disclosure norm.
Pay your dues
Online communities are generally insular to external credentials or work, but reward effort within the community. Some of them have explicit karma systems and credits that give you more privilege as you participate more. In some, informal norms do a similar job. Be useful to the community and its members over an extended period of time, and you'll find your opportunities growing.
Communities to consider joining
Most websites state a minimum age of 13, due to the COPPA in the United States for child privacy. The norm may not be strictly enforced by websites. But we strongly recommend not joining such a website if you're not yet 13, unless you check both with your parents and with the website administrators that it is okay for you to join the website. If you join too early, you might get kicked out.
Email and messaging
- Get an email account with a service such as Gmail. The Google ID can also be used for other Google services. Keep the username suggestions in mind.
- Get a Skype account. Some people you want to communicate with may be more comfortable using Skype than Google's voice services.
Joining does not mean that you are required to regularly participate. In fact, unless you find a good reason to participate actively, it's preferable that you don't. But joining still has benefits: you acquire an online presence, you can connect with more people, and you can search within the networks for specific people or things.
- Facebook: Join early. Keep your profile serious. Start building your network of friends and pages -- building friend networks, particularly networks of friends outside your immediate surroundings, takes time. It's okay to keep your Facebook activity to a minimum other than that, but if you do find communities on Facebook that you like participating in, you can participate in those. For more, see using Facebook effectively.
- Twitter: There aren't compelling arguments to join Twitter, but you might as well snag a good username when it's free and start building your Twitter network.
- LinkedIn: Again, a minimal LinkedIn profile can provide an online identity for you that others, including potential employers for jobs or internships can refer to. You can also start building connections and obtaining endorsements.
There are many other social network-based websites, such as Snapchat, Instagram, Pinterest. But none of these have the property that people are expected to have online accounts on the website, and they generally don't have a sufficiently large network of users already, so joining in order to connect with others may not work out well.
Websites for content creation
- Quora (question-and-answer website): This is a great place both for getting information and for honing your craft of communicating your thoughts through writing. You can also set up your blog on Quora (you can cross-post there with an off-Quora blog). In general, we'd recommend getting a start with writing practice on Quora before you start blogging on your own. See our join Quora page for more.
- StackExchange (question-and-answer website): Stack Exchange is a network of question-and-answer websites devoted to specific topics. It's less freewheeling than Quora, and allows you to develop your topical knowledge and communication skills for the topics where the Stack Exchanges are high-quality and active.
- Wikipedia: Wikipedia's a great resource to read, but you can also edit Wikipedia. Admittedly, it's a little more effort to get started editing Wikipedia: you need to understand the MediaWiki markup language and also the etiquette of Wikipedia, and you need to be prepared for your work getting ruthlessly rejected. Unlike Quora, we don't think all people reading this page should get on Wikipedia and start contributing. But it's something worth looking at.
- Some websites, like Reddit, can be rather controversial, but it may still be worth looking into these. Reddit in particular can seemingly have a low signal-to-noise ratio, but developing the ability to sort through low-quality content for good information may prove useful. Particular subreddits, combined with even rudimentary searching, can turn up surprisingly useful information. For instance, one might search for the keyword "AMA" (an abbreviation for "Ask Me Anything") on the AskScience subreddit to find all the threads in the AskScience AMA series (a series where users pose questions to real scientists about their research). Sometimes it is simply a matter of knowing what subreddits exist. For example, the subreddit for effective altruism is called smartgiving.
After you have some experience interacting within a community online, it may be worth investigating whether these connections can be transferred to a real-life (i.e. non-online) setting. For some, this type of transfer may be especially fruitful.
Further information: Transferring connections from online to real-life
Further information: creating your personal website