A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about reputation management for teens that sparked a lively conversation in the blogosphere. This came as something of a shock, but was ultimately a pleasant surprise. As anyone who’s ever blogged has probably found, having people disagree with you is one of the best ways to figure out what you really think. Sam Jackson, a fellow Berkman intern, stepped out first, with a sharp comment on the post. I’ve reposted it here; it’s a good argument in its own right, and it will put my response (below) in context.

Have to completely disagree with you here on some of these things. Although it is sensible to be careful about using full names online, there is no reason to wait until college as some sudden arbitrary point in time to start branding yourself on the web. If the implication is that people are going to be searching for you before then, then you should have something; if it’s because you don’t want people to see what you have up before in college you ’suddenly’ shift and reform your internet use-patterns, then that makes sense. But my website– samjackson.org — probably helped me get into college, and at the very least was in many ways responsible for my being an intern at Berkman.

Furthermore, if there are ties between the two–if someone can click on your ‘reputable’ blog and find links to your ‘old, pre-adult’ Flickr or even check the wayback machine for things… really, there is no reason to not be responsible all the time. I have more to say on this topic, I guess I should post about it sometime! Especially from my interactions with new media professionals and lots, lots, lots of people in the college admissions sphere–I would just have different prescriptions, I guess.

Sam’s pretty right-on about a lot of this. It’s true that if someone really, really wants to find your teenaged Xanga ramblings—whether that someone is a potential employer or an ex-girlfriend of the future—she’ll be able to. That’s true no matter how many precautions you take. If you’re publishing anything on the Internet, it’s probably findable somehow, and will be for a long time. However, as John Palfrey pointed out at our BB&N talk, it’s usually safe to operate on an 80-20 premise. In this case: if you take certain precautions, (such as using only a nickname as ID until you consciously decide to start your online “permanent record”), you’ll save your future self from being immediately connected to your nicknamed endeavors. Eighty percent of people, you could say, will only search your full name on Google. The other, industrious, 20 percent probably couldn’t be stopped anyway; they’re savvy and persistent enough to find info on you regardless. Both groups need to be kept in mind at all times when publishing information about yourself on the Internet, but a reasonable amount of laxness can be exercised, I believe, in situations where the 80% will likely never stumble on that specific realm of your online adventures.

Below, you’ll find my full response to Sam’s criticisms, originally sent to him in an email. Once again, I just wanted to thank Sam and all the other commentors for making this a truly interesting conversation. Keep ’em coming!

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You make some very good points about not just choosing college as an arbitrary starting point. College doesn’t make you magically grown up. I guess my main point was, for parents trying to find some reasonable guideline to give their younger teens, this is not a bad one. When I was around 13 or 14, spending up to 6 hours a day on the internet (seriously!), my parents were very understanding and permissive; they only asked that I not give my full name out to strangers. There’s no absolute safety, but I think that was a good, easy-to-remember baseline.

Then again, what you point out is also very true. We should always be conscious about what we’re putting out there on the internet, and indeed, knowing that something will be linked to your name (potentially forever) could maybe cause teens to take appropriate precautions. You’re always findable; it’s just a matter of how much effort it takes to find you. Maybe sticking to full name from the get-go could keep that at the forefront of everyone’s minds, which would be good all around.

I probably shouldn’t have implied that younger teens can’t be trusted to manage their online reputations. That’s certainly not what I meant. High school, in fact, is kind of the ideal time to enter the blog world, find something worth saying, and say it. I think your experience clearly speaks to that! What I meant, I think, is that starting a life online can sometimes involve a lot of experimentation. Becoming conscientious, in a way, requires going through this process of experimentation first. I think that parents should be open to the possibility of their younger teens experimenting with practices and identities on the Internet. But I think that at least talking about “what names you use, and how people find information about you in the future, and how very little is really private when you put it out there” is a really good discussion to have. Thus, I maybe should have stayed away from a strict prescription, and leaned toward just “have this discussion.”

You probably noticed, though, that I’m all for claiming your own domain name when you’re young—even if you’re not going to use it for a bit, or even if you are. Having one central location for your online “identity”—especially a location that usually shows up very high in the search results—helps to make all the other locations a bit less important by comparison.

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A quick shout-out, too, to Sam’s related blog post and Brian’s smart thoughts on managing your online presence. I tend toward being less alarmist and more optimistic, but it’s healthy to hear all sides of the debate. In the meantime, I’ll make an effort to be more controversial, more often…as it turns out, it’s kind of fun!

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