Can you erase your online blunders? With effort, and luck, it's possible
In an age when so many of us post or tweet before we think, there are steps you can take to try to hide or erase your embarrassing digital history.
Seattle Times staff reporter
What's done is done.
You've tweeted or posted on Facebook something stupid. Now what? Is this going to get you fired, maybe not even hired?
You don't want a lecture, just your embarrassing digital history to go away.
Which is why we're offering: How to Scrub Clean Your Internet Profile for Free. Or at least go a long ways to scrubbing it, especially if your postings haven't gone viral.
Why clean up your digital image?
Just ask Kathlyn Ehl, the recent college grad who this month said goodbye to her job with Rob McKenna's gubernatorial campaign.
She apologized for "offensive" tweets from some months ago — tweets before she joined the campaign. "Shut up and speak English #asians," read one tweet. Another took a jab at the elderly: "If it takes you an entire green light to walk in front of my car, GET A WHEELCHAIR #toooldtowalk."
Or ask Jean-Sun Hannah Ahn, who in March was the newly crowned Miss Seattle, and had to apologize for tweeting, "Ew I seriously am hating Seattle right now ... " and, " ... Ugh can't stand cold rainy Seattle and the annoying people."
Or the three legislative aides to Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Lake Stevens, fired in December for tweets that included calling the congressman an "idiot boss," and showing up to work themselves "at 9 a.m. with shots of Jack. What a glorious and frightening way to kick off the month."
It's too late to cover their twitter tracks. Ehl's tweets, for example, were picked up worldwide, from Britain's The Daily Mail to iamkorean.com.
But there are actions you can take now, before old postings become a spectacle.
If you want, you can hire someone. Internet damage control has become a booming industry.
American companies will spend $2.2 billion in 2012 for "reputation and presence management," according to Jed Williams, senior analyst for BIA / Kelsey, a media-consulting firm based in Chantilly, Va.
By 2015, that sum will grow to $5 billion, says Williams.
At reputation.com, a Redwood City, Calif., image-fixing firm, businesses can pay several thousand dollars to "make sure customers only see the truth about your business by eliminating negative material from your top search results." That negative material would include not only bad online reviews, but repostings of embarrassing tweets.
But since you're likely young and don't have thousands of dollars, we offer a free version, based on industry experts, including Matt Ivester, the 28-year-old founder of JuicyCampus.com, a college gossip site.
The site shut down in 2009 for lack of money, but it gave Ivester the knowledge to write "lol ... OMG!: What Every Student Needs to Know About Online Reputation Management, Digital Citizenship and Cyberbullying." He just earned a master's in business administration from Stanford University.
Says Ivester, "Part of the problem with younger people is that a lot of times, if they post something on a blog, they tell themselves that 'only my friends will read this.' For the most part, that's probably true.
"But all it takes is for one wrong person to see what you posted — like someone looking you over for a job, or a reporter who connects you to a political candidate."
Now, let's get to work in cleaning up your Internet presence. Warning: It's going to take some effort.
But jeesh, why were you tweeting from a bar at 1:30 a.m. in the first place?
Assess the damage. Google yourself.
If you have a common name, like John Smith, include your city, or school, to refine the search.
If you're signed into a Google account, sign out or go to your search settings to turn off "Web History" or personal results. If "Web History" is turned on, Google personalizes your search results using your past search activity. You want to see what others see when they Google your name.
Then also search your name on Yahoo and Bing.
Although research shows that 96 percent of users don't go past the first page of a Google search, Ivester says to look at several pages of search results.
And, he says, have someone whose opinion you trust also look at the search results. "Everyone has a blind spot about what may or may not be appropriate. You want a parent or someone with a different sensibility to review the stuff," says Ivester.
You also can sign up for a free account at BrandYourself.com.It'll provide you with what a first page of a Google search on you will show, give you a score on how good or bad you look on that first page, and steps you can take to improve that score.
Of course, brandyourself.com would like you to upgrade to a "premium" account that can range from $9.99 a month to $79.99 a year. But it does say, "Part of our mission is to help everyone take control of their own search results with no price barrier. That's why our basic features are 100% free."
Go to your Twitter account. Delete the embarrassing stuff. Again, ask someone with that different "sensibility" to look at your tweets.
You just might luck out.
Maybe nobody has taken screen shots of the tweets that make you look like an idiot. Maybe nobody has reposted them.
Delete some more! And cull your "friends."
Go to your Facebook page.
Again, with the help of a trusted friend who can provide a second opinion, delete embarrassing material.
Also go to "privacy settings." You'll see that you can limit the audience for past posts, and that you can retroactively change the privacy setting on old posts.
And you'll see that you can manually approve posts you're tagged in before they go on your profile.
It's also time "to remove the randos," as in random individuals, who've become your friends, says Ivester.
Did you accept a stranger as a friend because they're friends of somebody you know? Time to cull that list! Why would you trust a stranger in your home? After that, says Ivester, you need to click on "Manage Friends List." He suggests dividing your new, culled list into family, friends, professional contacts and acquaintances.
You decide who gets to see that bikini photo.
Widen the hunt and ask for mercy.
If family and friends have reposted your embarrassing stuff, ask them to delete it.
If you're dealing with some other website, go to their "contact us" and send a polite request to remove your post, explaining why. It just might work, says Ivester. He removed content when he had his JuicyCampus site.
It is not true that everything stays on the Internet forever, he says, or that Google stores all old versions of a Web page.
Google does store — cache — a snapshot of a Web page as its Google "crawlers" search a website.
But if a page no longer exists, it will eventually drop out of the Google cache.
To speed up getting that page removed, use one of these Google links, depending on whether you own the site that was cached, http://seati.ms/remove-cache1, or don't own the site, http://seati.ms/remove-cache2. Also, those who know about the Wayback Machine, which has archived 150 billion Web pages dating to 1996, will reasonably worry that postings might end up there.
According to Brewster Kahle, digital librarian and founder of archive.org., the San Francisco nonprofit that runs the Wayback Machine, basically, your tweets won't be archived. Not unless, again, somebody reposted them on a public site. Same for Facebook postings.
If you have blogged embarrassing material on your own website, and so far it hasn't been reposted, you can go to http://archive.org/about/exclude.php and find out how to remove your site from the Wayback Machine, even retroactively. If the instructions prove too daunting, email the group at email@example.com and they will do it for you.
Set up a Google alert about yourself, so you'll know when anything about you is posted. This way you might get ahead of controversy if a post does gain publicity.
In that case, says Polly Wood, reputation.com's senior team lead, special projects, you need "transparency" and "sincerity," i.e., exude contrition, like you really, really mean you're sorry you got caught with that idiotic tweet.
Accentuate the positive
"Put on YouTube a video of you doing something impressive, like giving some academic speech. Have a friend write positive blog posts about you," says Ivester.
If you don't give academic speeches, maybe helping at an animal shelter, whatever.
Your hope is that the positive stuff is what people will see in that all-important first page of a Google search.
"And cross-link it all — a Twitter account, Facebook, LinkedIn. That will drive up the search result rankings of the content you link to," says Ivester.
But there is cross-linking and cross-linking. Google will penalize you for using "link schemes." The company explains here http://support.google.com/webmasters/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=66356.Wait a minute.
Cross-link to your tweets?
Wasn't that what got you in trouble in the first place?
Ah, well, luckily there are apps for those with impulse-control issues.
One is LaterBro, and you can program it to wait an hour, two hours, until the next day, to post your tweet or on Facebook. That gives you time to read it in a more sober mood.
LaterBro was developed to help those who feel they have to continually post tweets as part of their job. This way they write tweets in advance and can have dinner.
Joost Ruyter, of Amsterdam, the Netherlands, is one of the apps' developers.
"I've been amazed a couple of times before at what people use LaterBro for," he says in an email. "Scheduling Bible verses, for example."
OK, start scrubbing that Internet profile!
You never know when somebody might be taking screen grabs.
News researcher Gene Balk contributed to this report.
Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or firstname.lastname@example.org