We all make embarrassing mistakes online (I more than most). While many of the warnings covered here have been beaten into us by every cliché article on online etiquette, we have a tendency to recognize errors in other careless people roaming the internet while remaining blindly unaware of our own faux pas. Instead of chuckling at the stupidity of others while perusing the mistakes below, honestly reflect on your own potential to make them and determine what you can do to avoid them. Don't become another statistic.
Why Profile Photos Aren't as Straightforward As You Think
As much as we may wish for people people to judge us by the content of our character (or witty tweets and cute cat photos), superficial evaluations of appearance still count. Before you post a picture on your profile, reflect on the mistakes you may be making.
Before selecting a photo to upload, ask yourself: "What counts as an appropriate profile photo on this site, and what would I like mine to say about me?"
In many places, especially social networks intended for friends and professional contacts from the physical world, it is only appropriate to post a picture of yourself. It is not appropriate to post anything other than a bust or headshot on Linkedin (unless you are in a unique profession that may call for something else, such as an artist). Pushing an agenda, an obsession, or parental pride in posts is annoying enough; should you use an image of a child / fictional character / pet / cause / spouse as your profile photo, you are performing the equivalent action next to every single post you make.
Though headshots of your physical self are de rigueur on many major social networks, it is not appropriate to use headshots for profile photos on all sites. This is especially true within online comment threads and message boards. Pay attention to what other people are using as their profile picture / avatar and choose your own based on what appears to be a best practice. On some sites, it may be best to have no profile photo at all (this is especially the case within communities that celebrate anonymity). On other sites, the profile photos of the most devoted community members consist of original fan art commissioned from artists such as those on DeviantART.
How Even Grandmother-Friendly Posts Might Share Too Much
How many times have you been warned to not post information that may come back to haunt you online? Surely you yearn to be warned again. Bear with me.
Every time you post something online you need to perform the New York Times test. Ask yourself, "Would I be comfortable having this information about me in the New York Times?"
If the answer is no, leave said information offline. We all have our 15 minutes of fame. If reporters don't dig up enough dirt during your time in the spotlight, Redditors will.
We all too often hear warnings about over-sharing online and think such activity is limited to pictures in which you are doing a keg stand at a party or drowning puppies. You should instead be considering everything from the jokes you make to the political causes you support (after all, anyone can find what politicians you have donated to in the past using online resources). Even posts your own grandmother would like and agree with might paint you in an unflattering light in the eyes of a potential employer or the mainstream media.
Should you have accidentally slipped up and already shared something potentially damning online, cut your losses and be prepared to face the consequences with wit and style. Do not try to have something embarrassing removed from the internet through threats, questionable online reputation services, or legal action. Alas, those desperate actions almost never work and often backfire into a Streisand effect, in which your unflattering information spreads further and faster as a result of your botched cover up (consider Beyonce's unflattering Superbowl photo as a relatively recent example).
Why Sharing Nothing May Also Be an Embarrassment
Some people interpret warnings about posting information online as encouragement to post nothing online. Having no online presence at all can be one of the most damaging mistakes you can make. Those who refuse to craft and maintain an online presence run the risk of being seen as arrogant, paranoid or technologically unsophisticated.
Unless you are over 60, you should have a persistently-maintained online presence. Even if you have a really good reason for not wanting to have an online presence, the majority of people won't see it that way. Consider how difficult it can be to eat out with a friend who only consumes gluten-free, organic, vegetarian, locally-produced food. Those choices might be healthy, ethical and even safer, but they give you fewer means of interaction, and might even give you the feeling that this friend thinks he's better than you.
At a minimum, create a complete LinkedIn profile and/or a respectable Facebook profile. Those basic steps can prevent friends -- or even potential employers -- from completely discounting you (many companies do not even recruit people outside of LinkedIn and some will not hire individuals without active Facebook pages).
Why Your Email Address May Need Polish
Many people with whom you interact see your email address more than they see your face.
You know that clever email address you came up with in the '90s? You shouldn't still be using it. If you wouldn't name your kid "Starswirl_the_Bearded" or "purplebabie2000," you should not use that name to identify yourself in email correspondences. Ideally, your email address will incorporate your real name. If you can't get some variation of "first.last," "last_first," first.middleinitial.last," incorporate another relevant name, such as your business, profession, or geographic area.
In addition to judging you by your email handle, people will judge you by your choice of mail carrier. Those who use addresses given by their internet providers (e.g. @comcast.net, @att.net) are often seen as technologically illiterate. Believe it or not, my colleagues and I have encountered several instances in which people have not been hired because of their email carrier selections. To play it safe, use an email address procured through your business (e.g. JohnDoe@YourEmployerName.com), your school (e.g. JohnDoe@Alumni.Stanford.edu), your personal website (e.g. JohnDoe@JohnDoe.com), or Gmail (e.g. JohnDoe@Gmail.com).
Finally, when presented with the "name" field during account setup, many apparently do not realize that what they enter is what people will see displayed as their name in friends' and colleagues' inboxes, assuming instead that the field applies to one's account. As a result, they do not bother to capitalize their names, disregard typos, and feel the need to add some sort of qualifier (the result being one's name showing up as "john doe g mail"). Be sure that your name, as it is displayed in others' inboxes, is indeed your properly-capitalized name.
How Careless Sharing Leads to Banishment
If you post something online, chances are you want someone to read it. When someone reads something or finds your post to be cool, useful, or interesting, you win internet points (no, that is not a real thing). Why, then, would you post something that would not be interesting or cause people to see you in a negative light?
We all know "that guy" who always brags about himself. We all know "that girl" who talks endlessly about her obscure hobby. We all groan at the alarmist soul who goes around telling you old wives' tales that even a seven-year-old would immediately discount. Don't be that person!
We all brag a little on Facebook and Twitter. Thats ok. That said, if you realize you've posted about how awesome your kids are three times in a row, you may want to work on diversifying your content. If you realize the majority of your posts are about a specific hobby or interest, ask yourself whether most of your Facebook friends are genuinely interested in it and consider posting content about that subject on a website devoted to it. If you have many friends, but very few Facebook likes or comments on your posts, honestly ask yourself whether you are providing something of value to them (if nobody cares enough to like or comment on what you posted, chances are the answer is "no").
Sometimes it's not what you share but how you share that annoys others and leads to your secret embarrassment. Automated posting (e.g. tweets that go out every time you publish a new blog post, Facebook posts comprised of the pre-formatted title of an article you're sharing, etc.) can make you look thoughtless. If you cannot be bothered to craft an original post with some insightful commentary, do you honestly think that your friends and followers will care enough to read it?
It is important to post content that is relevant and interesting to your friends and followers because many sites learn from others' reactions to your content, then bury or promote it accordingly. The more boring you become, the less likely you are to never even show up in a friend's feed. This is not only just due to special algorithms, but friends actively choosing to un-follow or manually hide your posts because they are tired of seeing them. Having many friends on Facebook doesn't mean much if they have all chosen to hide your posts from their timeline.
Should you be concerned that your friends are not adequately notified about your posts (either because you suspect people have intentionally unfollowed you or you think your post is really important), do not resort to promotional tagging (that is, tagging others names' in posts and photos, not because they're directly involved, but because you wish for them to get a special notification and go directly to your post). Misusing mentions and tags for self-promotion not only hurts your personal brand, but lowers you to the level of an automated spam bot. Tagging others in posts is a great way to make your content more interactive, but you should only do so when they are obviously relevant to a post or present in a photo.
In addition to sharing while caring about your friends and followers, it is important to share while caring about veracity. Pretty much all of us have seen long-debunked myths, legends, rumors and assertions posted to our Facebook feeds by friends who did not take the time to verify them (Snopes.com is always just a click away). At the best, sharing something untrue makes you look gullible; at the worst, you look downright stupid (and may end up on a blog like Literally Unbelievable, to which people contribute screenshots of Facebook posts in which people misinterpret articles from The Onion to be true). As easy and fun as it can be to share or retweet something with a single click, that click might be a one way ticket to public embarrassment.