If you’ve ever searched someone’s name online or in a people finder, everything that comes up is part of their digital footprint. Our digital footprints are more expansive and complex, and also relevant than ever before.
Below, we explore exactly what’s meant by digital footprint and why it matters so much. If you are concerned about concealing your digital footprint, do check out VPN service providers like SurfShark.
What is a Digital Footprint?
Your digital footprint is also called a digital shadow. It’s a reference to your traceable digital activities, your online actions, your communications online, and your contributions to the online world. Digital footprints can be separated into two general categories—passive and active.
Your passive digital footprint is made up of information stored as cookies and the activities you do when browsing the web.
Your active digital footprint includes the information you share on your social media profiles and online.
The emails you send and receive and any information you submit online are also included as part of your footprint.
Specific examples of things that make up your online footprint include:
- Buying things online
- Registered for brand newsletters
- Using a mobile banking app
- Opening a credit card account
- Using social media
- Sharing photos, information, or data on social media
- Joining a dating app or website
- Viewing news articles
- Using a fitness tracker
We don’t always think about it, but because of the internet and our reliance on technology and apps, we have very little privacy. What goes on the internet can often stay there, even if you delete it. It’s important to understand the ramifications for yourself, and if you have children or teens, they need to understand as well.
Why Does Your Digital Footprint Matter?
There are so many ways that digital footprints matter in your personal and professional life. For younger people, their footprint can matter in terms of their education as well.
If you’re a teen or young person and you’re going to be applying to college or any higher-level education program, your digital footprint could show up and impact the admission team’s decision.
If you’re looking for a new job, your digital footprint similarly can become relevant.
Even in situations where you’re staying with your same employer, but you’re getting a promotion, people might search your name because of it, and you don’t want anything unflattering to appear.
There was a relatively recent situation where a young woman was hired for a high-level position at Teen Vogue. After she was hired, her old Tweets came to light, and she ended up resigning because of massive public pressure. This was just one of so many stories like this.
Your digital footprint is pretty permanent once the data is public, and you have little control over how other people use it. Your footprint can determine your digital reputation, and things you post online can easily be misinterpreted.
For anyone, their digital footprint can be used to track online activities, create an online portrait of who you are, and it can create security risks.
So what can you do to clean up your digital footprint and manage it going forward?
Protecting Your Digital Footprint
The following are important things you can do to manage your footprint online and in the digital world.
- Use a search engine to see what you’re working with. You can simply type your name into search engines or a people finder, and a lot of information will come up. You can see what the public sees when they look into your name. If you changed your name because of marriage or any other reason, make sure to look up all versions of the name you’ve used. You can set up Google Alerts so that you’ll get an email if anything new pops up about your name too.
- If you search for your name and find that it’s showing up on places like whitepages.com or on real estate sites, you can actually contact the site admin and request they take it off.
- Be careful about what you’re actively sharing. This includes not only what you’re sharing on social media but also what you’re sharing with organizations. For example, maybe think twice before submitting your personal information on a contact form.
- Regularly audit your social media settings. You want to have the highest possible level of control over who’s seeing your posts and photos. You need to review these settings often because social media companies often change their policies and procedures.
- Don’t be someone who overshares on social media. You need to think twice before you share relationship information, travel plans, or anything personal.
- If you have old social media profiles that you no longer use, delete them. The information from those might still be floating around, but it can make it harder to find if you delete the profiles.
- Consider using a virtual private network (VPN). With a private VPN, when you’re online, it masks your IP address. Then you can access content privately. A quality VPN will also encrypt your data securely and prevent it from being collected or tracked online.
- Consider deleting old email accounts.
- Use the Wayback Machine. You can then see your online history, and you’ll find information that’s unflattering or perhaps outdated, or flat-out wrong. Then, you can get in touch with the site admins wherever this information is and ask them politely to remove it.
Finally, there are certain parts of your digital footprint that might be negative or unflattering that you can’t remove. They could be things related to your criminal or financial history or something that you’ve asked a site admin to remove, and they haven’t.
Finally, in some of these situations, the only thing you can do is try to push this information down with a more positive digital footprint.
To build a digital footprint that’s positive, you can start a personal blog where you write about topics ideally related to your career. Then, these blogs are going to be what primarily populates searches when a potential employer looks for you.
You can also build and maintain a strong presence on LinkedIn. Even getting involved in your community can help you clean up a negative digital footprint because your name will be included in things like press releases and local news stories.