This summer, Leonardo DiCaprio will star in a film adaptation of Fitzgerald’s great American novel, The Great Gatsby, playing a man who reinvents himself in the Roaring Twenties from a Midwestern farm boy to Jay Gatsby, East Coast millionaire known for flowing cash and fabulous parties.
The idea of reinvention often powers great stories and characters, like Les Miserables’ Jean Valjean, who transformed from prisoner 24601 to mayor Monsieur Madeleine — all while being hunted by police in 19th century France. And starting over is a compelling idea. You or someone you know, in fact, has likely reinvented themselves from the ground up, either to overcome a youthful indiscretion or to rebuild after economic upheaval.
But Gatsby and Valjean never had to deal with what you do: a digital paper trail.
You never know what’ll appear on the Internet. Google your neighbor’s name and his recent foreclosure may pop up. Beyond damaging his reputation, that information may hurt his chances of a promotion at work. Or consider your niece, applying to medical school. She’s concerned how her profile — complete with Facebook vacation pictures, a couple of driving citations and opinionated tweets — looks to the admissions committee. Are we forever haunted by these digital trails? The answer depends on how fiercely you are willing to create and guard a positive reputation.
We’ve all heard it’s nearly impossible to get something off the Internet once it’s out there. But you can limit the exposure and diminish its impact with a few actions. The easiest way is to increase your social media privacy to limit exposure of your posted data. Unfortunately, policies are a moving target, so you’ll need to stay on top of those often changing rules. But if it’s too much to deal with, you can just hide everything, drop your account or ask friends not to post photos or information about you.
Search works differently, though. Since local newspapers often publish minor law enforcement offenses, that underaged consumption of alcohol report may pop up in Google long after the misstep. Still, if you run across something, just contact the publisher. If the website doesn’t have a contact page listed, you can often find it by seeing who registered the domain. Once you get a e-mail or phone number, politely explain your situation. They’ll often remove the offending item.
But if the webmaster doesn’t reply or is unwilling to remove the page, all is not lost. The next step is to contact the company that hosts the website. A quick search pulls up the information. Hosts will pull material that’s deemed sensitive or slanderous, but if it’s within the realm of free speech, there’s no guarantee they’ll pull it.
Lastly, if the host is located in say, China, where companies rarely comply with the law, you can contact Google to have the page omitted from the search results. If you can’t find it in Google, it’s just as good as gone, and to do that, fill out an online form. But again, sensitive or slander. The same rules apply.
Removing government records, though, is a bit more difficult. Local governments, which store public records in traditional filing systems, also post them online. But if you’ve been foreclosed upon or divorced, don’t worry. A growing number of tech-savvy courts reconcile transparency requirements with the assumption that they don’t need to broadcast personal records. People won’t likely stumble into that data because they now check to see that you won’t misuse or resell it.
But if worse comes to worst, you can create a personal blog and open accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, Tumblr, Pinterest, among others, to push down the bad results. It won’t wipe them clean, but most people don’t look past the first page. If you can control the first 10 results, you can limit the number of people who learn about the skeletons in your closet.
You should Google yourself regularly, but it’s far easier to set up a Google Alert for your name. That way if Google finds a mention about you, it’ll e-mail you. Simple. But if you have a generic name, like say, John Smith, your inbox will get bombarded. Then again, if your name is John Smith, you wouldn’t have a problem with online reputation.
The Internet isn’t a magical cloud of technology that only exists to help you communicate and find information. Search engines, along with mapping services and your free e-mail account, are all funded by advertisers. And they pay a premium to collect data about you to target ads to your personal tastes.
Today, kids even have an online identity before they are even born. Parents often upload ultrasound photos to Facebook. And by the time elementary school begins, they have profile pages with full albums full of birthday parties, summers at the pool and weekends with grandma.
Your digital profile affects every “life transaction” — hiring, dating, marriage, divorce, applying for school — and there is no escaping it. In the digital age, you can’t fly below the radar. Could James Gatz pull off his Gatsby gig today? Probably not — especially with the rise of facial recognition software. All it takes to dig up a person’s past is a few taps of a screen, so the idea of Jean Valjean’s unmasking — undone by a dramatic display of his physical strength witnessed by his former prison guard — has become a quaint concept indeed. ♦
Categories: Culture Desk