Footprints in the Cybersands

As a college student in the process of transferring to another college, it seems relevant to consider the issue of one’s digital footprints. The Huffington Post reported in 2011 that upwards of 80% of college admission officers will look up applicants on Facebook or using Google (article here). I imagine that number is much higher now, and it will continue to be one of the determining factors in admission for the upcoming batches of college students.

Are you aware of the traces you leave whenever you log in to a website, search for terms, or make comments on certain sites? Perhaps you use proxy software to mask your online adventures, or make use of the security features in Google Chrome, Firefox, and other browsers. Perhaps you take the opposite approach, figuring the information is relatively harmless in the sea of data that is the web. Either way, it is prudent to prepare all users of the web in knowing of the extent of the tracking that can go on, and the effect their digital footprint could have on them.

Some schools are taking a proactive approach to handle this issue, and to convey the seriousness of it to their students. Many teachers (such as Nichole Pinkard in Chicago) find it goes hand in hand with promoting digital literacy, which will soon define literacy in general as media and technology become completely integrated with daily interactions.

In the best cases, students are taught the benefits of making a positive footprint (rather than hiding anonymously on the web), as well as the ramifications of negative ones. This could be said to be the modern version of imparting responsible and ethical behavior to the online citizen– teaching students that their actions and words have repercussions and should be treated as such (rather than allowing the misconception to continue that it is the ideal trolling ground).

Thinking on this, I have to consider my own digital footprint. I enjoy commenting on news and blog posts now and then, and I use my Facebook profile to sign in to various sites. I search for a variety of terms and subjects in the pursuit of various academic topics. Presently, I keep most of my Facebook profile restricted to the general public, though some of my political and scientific inclinations shine through at times. Should I be concerned?

Doing a search on myself reveals all of the places I’ve lived in the past 12 years, along with a few archived newspaper articles (which are positive). Some other loosely statistical information is available, not all of it accurate. I have to wonder at the breadth of companies that have one or more of my e-mail addresses in their mailing lists or on file, as it is difficult to know how much of that has been saved and shared over the 15 years I’ve been online… it is easy to feel invaded by such incessant tracking, but it is also empowering to realize how you can impact the impression people have of you by augmenting your online presence with positive reinforcement.

The opposite potential is disturbing, but it should be said– someone can easily harass and manipulate another by publishing false information online, and spreading it. Thus, we have the need for cyberethics.

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