What’s Your Digital Footprint?

I’m no Mark Cuban fan, and he’s clearly trying to sell his app in this video, but he does give solid advice about being in control of your digital footprint, which, in basic terms, your online “permanent record”. I’ve mentioned in a previous post how your old profiles, accounts, and journals persist long after you’ve forgotten about them, and that’s exactly the type of digital footprint that can lead to your personal information being leaked or stolen. We tend to think we’re relatively safe online. For the most part we are, but only due to the fact that there are millions of netizens online, making your information arbitrary or unappealing by way of obscurity. That’s no reason to be careless.

While our governments and systems aren’t as dystopian as Cuban suggests (at least not yet), you can seize control of your digital footprint. Potential employers and other interested parties will be looking for your online, especially on social media. Armed with this knowledge, you can shape the way people view you by being mindful of what you post, when you post, and where you post on social media sites. Remember the old mantra about making a first impression? Your digital footprint is your first impression for everyone who cares enough to look for you; it is up to you to put your best foot forward. While you’re not around, your online profiles are your stand-ins. Here are a few things to be mindful of:

1. Usernames: Pick something appropriate. If you want your online social life and work life to be separate, use different usernames.
2. Language: Use proper communication, be respectful, and don’t assume no one’s looking. Someone is always looking.

3. Privacy Settings: Yes, it’s a hassle, and yes, it takes time, but a little but of time invested goes a long way. Are there pictures you don’t want strangers looking at? Check your privacy settings!

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Buzzword: Clickbait

What is clickbait? It’s a term used to describe sensationalist headlines used specifically for generating traffic. The “bait” part of this Internet portmanteau comes from “bait and switch”: you are promised one thing but given something else after you’ve paid. While on the surface it may seem harmless, the reason clickbait exists is to generate traffic and revenue. More traffic means more ads may be loaded, which in turn generates money for the host site. You might’ve seen something like this all over Facebook:

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Rather than a simple explanation of what the video is about in the title, it instead uses a hyperbolic statement. Most of these videos are uploaded to Youtube, but take a look at the URL; rather than a direct link, the host site, Distractify, embeds the video link so that it can use its own titling scheme. The actual name of the video is “Natural Pools – Natural Pool selfbuild”. So why do this? Why jump through so many hoops just to get you to visit their site to load ads most people will probably never see or click on? Think back to my earlier post on our insidious little friend, the tracking cookie. Each time your computer loads an ad or website, tracking cookies are used to gather information about you and your activity; this data can include geographical locations, other sites you’ve visited, your email address, and if you choose to log in via your social networks, ANY AND ALL DATA YOU’VE CHOSEN TO LIST AS PUBLIC ON YOUR PROFILES.

So how many tracking cookies can you expect to see from your average site? Usually 1-3, which is the case with popular social sites like Reddit and Youtube. How many are on clickbait sites like Distractify? According to a handy add-on called Ghostery, there are 12 tracking cookies on that page alone. TWELVE!

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Three of them are overtly advertising, four are social widgets, and the remaining five are analytics trackers – cookies used to study your behavior online. They will gather information that affects what ads are shown to you, what videos are suggested to you at a later date, the types of emails you receive, all with the main purpose of manipulating your behavior. If you think Facebook’s recent psychological “study” was offensive and wrong, trackers and advertisers have been doing it for years, and right under our noses! Here are some browser add-ons that will make your life a lot simpler. If you have any to add, please share:

Adblock Plus: Prevents ads and trackers from loading when you visit a website. Also blocks ads on Youtube so you can enjoy the video without being interrupted. Note: these are indiscriminate, so if you want to support your favorite broadcaster, you’ll have to manually turn it off for them to get ad revenues.

Ghostery: Tracks the trackers attempting to load on a website, blocks them, and gives you a description of what they do and who they are. Highly recommended. Updates frequently.

Lightbeam (Formerly Collusion): Shows you the third party trackers connected to any site you’ve allowed cookies to be installed. Wonderful tool.