Web presence is exactly what it says it is: how one presents oneself on the Web—social media, domain of one’s own, interactions with others’ domains. It is intentional. It is not necessarily singular.
A digital footprint, on the other hand, is not entirely intentional: it is the union of one’s web presence and the residue of everything one does on the internet—communications, transactions, consumption, curiosity—and some of what one does in real life, offline, that gets caught in the Web.
Both can and should be managed by both positive and negative choices. I choose to include in my web presence this website, Facebook, Twitter (both personal and professional accounts), LinkedIn, and multiple Google accounts; but I choose not to include other social networks like Instagram or Snapchat. One might argue that accounts on commerce sites like Amazon, Etsy, and Airbnb should be included in one’s web presence, but I would include those only to the extent that one projects one’s identity there. Such things definitely fall into the category of digital footprint.
A digital footprint is significantly more difficult to manage. We are told to mind where on the Web we enter personal information—contact information, banking information, &c.—and to use strong passwords. But neither of those precautions protects us against false associations, people with the same name, or negligent friends and relatives, or even the constant data tracking of our daily lives.
Much of our digital footprint is invisible to us, but one can see a piece of it by googling oneself. I did this using my name as I most often write it, Nicholas Kwiek, and with my name as I most often speak it, Nick Kwiek, without quotation marks in both cases. I got very different results. For the former, the first page of results was entirely what I would want it to be: the instances of my web presence listed above, with some professional sites mixed in. For the latter, I got a mix of results that related to me with results that related to another Nick Kwiek who lives in Lansing, Michigan. (I am originally from Grand Rapids.) We are not related. The second page of both searches began to include results about people with my last name and different first names. My dad’s cousin Jesse is an important biologist at The Ohio State University, so there were a lot of results about him.
One result from googling Nicholas Kwiek gave me some concern. It was a personal data site—a site where one can look up information on individuals—with an entry under my mom’s name. It correctly listed some details about her, but incorrectly listed others, including contact information and relations. If that appears publicly on one website, that means that those data are regarded as factual somewhere. It must therefore be assumed that part of my digital footprint is false. Does that affect me, my reputation, my credit? Not yet, as far as I know, but it might, and there is little if anything I can do about it.
Another interesting result was an article form the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner about a time that I testified at a Bethel City Council meeting. Nothing about my participation in that event should have been on the internet, but now the internet knows that stood up once against animal cruelty in Bethel. I was surprised to see that my name ever appeared in the News-Miner.
Perhaps the more troubling aspect of one’s digital footprint is how much the internet knows about us—or thinks it knows about us. We see this revealed constantly in advertising. I share my laptop computer with my wife, so it is usually logged into her Amazon account and my Facebook account. I see ads on Facebook for everything either of us searches on Amazon. I see ads in my emails for the websites where I shop. The internet knows that I buy my clothes from L.L. Bean, Duluth Trading Company, and REI. Because I am a millennial living in bush Alaska (i.e., I conduct most of my personal business, including shopping and banking, online), I cannot control the massive amount of data being collected about me at all times.
As someone who teaches math to college students, I do not do much teach them about web presence. I try to model good digital citizenship, and I try to get them to use good resources online, particularly those that I use or recommend. I communicate with them by email and text message, and this semester I added Slack. If they add me on Facebook or LinkedIn, I accept, but I do not add them. I do my best to project a mature, professional web presence for them to emulate.
As a part of that mature, professional web presence, I maintain two Twitter accounts. I do not post much at all on either, but the “personal” account is largely political, and the “professional” account is mostly about education and math and science. Since I work for a state university, my political activity should not be tied to my work at all, so those two feeds ought to remain separate. I have very few crossover followers.
I have never attempted to maintain entirely separate web presences. Without anonymity or a pseudonym, I imagine that would be incredibly difficult. While I do maintain different accounts for different purposes, and work to minimize crossover, I see no reason to keep the parts of my web presence a secret from each other.
As I created this reflection, these two resources were particularly influential:
Internet Society. (2016, Jan 12). Four reasons to care about your digital footprint. [Video File.] Retrieved from https://youtu.be/Ro_LlRg8rGg
Williams, L. Y. (2012). Who is the ‘virtual’ you and do you know who’s watching you? In D. Rasmussen Neal (Ed.), Social media for academics: A practical guide (pp. 175-192). Oxford: Chandos Publishing.