THE FEED VIDEO: What's Your Privacy IQ?

The Feed was my regular column for employees of the Dartmouth-Hitchcock health system about how the synthesis of health care and social media can influence all of us—employees, patients and the community—for the better.

Chances are, you use Facebook, Twitter or YouTube. You certainly work with people who do.

Because we mostly interact with the same group of friends or followers online, it's easy to forget that these are public spaces. And ignoring your privacy settings makes them more public than they have to be.

It's amazing how many people don't know how to control their privacy or manage their online reputations. Maybe it's because many of us don't realize that the social sphere is a public one.

In some ways, it's easy to hide online. It's why we have Internet trolls, after all. The illusion of anonymity makes people say things they would never say to another person's face. But the more comfortable we become with the Internet, the more we're starting to say these things out in the open. How often have you seen a surprisingly angry or even hateful post from someone you know and like?

There is no difference between shouting in the cafeteria and posting that comment. However, that comment could have a hundred million more witnesses—and you'll never know who all of them are or, more importantly, what could happen as a result.

So what? Everything is online these days.

Exactly. Which is why we all need to care about what we put out there.

On Facebook:

  • Do you know who can see every picture you've been tagged in?

  • Are you OK with what's in those pictures?

On Twitter:

  • How does your timeline look? Ever posted something that you wouldn't want your boss to find? Future employers will not only notice this, they'll also note whether you were probably at work when you said it.

  • What images are in your Twitterstream? Are you ok with the fact that anyone you will ever need something from can see them?

I can just delete that tweet.

Yeah, not so much.

  • Search engines crawl the web and keep a record of everything they find. Google may still display the Instagram you posted last month but took down last week. Next time you do a Google search, hover over one of the results and you'll see an option to view the cached version of that page. That isn't the live site; that's what Google has on its servers, and they're never in a hurry to update it.

  • Maybe a friend shared it - and who knows where it'll end up from there.

  • Depending on people's settings, your posts and tags may be sent not only to your friends' pages, or the pages on which you post, but to the email inboxes of those friends and admins as well. (And you can't get those posts back.)

Before posting something, consider the simple fact that there's no deleting what goes on the internet, and ask yourself: What if I apply for a job or meet the perfect someone, and they surface again? What if my boss finds this?

Hey! It was MY comment on MY wall.

Actually, if it's public, it's in the public domain.

  • On Twitter, unless you've protected ALL your tweets since the beginning of time, everything (except direct messages) is public record. (The Library of Congress is archiving them at this very moment.)

  • And on Facebook, most users have left their profiles wide open.

Even if you're extremely cautious online, consider that we put enormous trust in the technical skill and good faith of strangers to keep all our content where it belongs. And people get angry when they feel their privacy has been breached on (or by) social media services. But because these are also free sites, for the most part, we don't have a lot of say in the matter. We do, however, control what we post in the first place.

What do I do?

Although we have much less control than we used to, there are still things we can do to keep our information out of the public eye.

1. Google yourself.

If you haven't done this yet, find out who the Internet thinks you are outside of your social networks, and see who's commented on your existing posts. Go Google yourself. (Thats not a euphemism.) Put your name in quotes in the search box and go to town. Google won't catch everything, so look yourself up on the sites you use as well. It may take some patience if you have a common name, but eventually you'll find something interesting.

When I searched for my own name, I came up with comments I've left on people's blogs and public Facebook pages; every photo and social media profile I own; any photo or posting in which I've been tagged; and even a listserv post from 1999. (Yes, they had them then, and they're still searchable.) Keep in mind that in most cases, we can't remove what's out there because we no longer own it.

2. Wash behind your ears.

I know someone who spends hours primping for a night out with friends. It's really important to her that others see her a certain way. But her Facebook wall is a misspelled mess of drunken midnight Instagrams and complaints about work (which, by the way, she sends at work). Her wall is wide-open to the world, and so is her Twitter feed. I know that she's more than this, but her future employers don't. Her clients don't. What would they think—and what might happen—if they look her up?

Even if you're a well-behaved citizen of the world who's looking for a job, or the love of your life, are you sure you aren't tagged in anything that you'd rather not be?

It isn't rocket science, and I'll say it a thousand times. Seriously. More than ever, how you come across online is becoming, in many ways, just as important as how you come across in person. And the consequences of a careless post can affect you forever.

3. Bottom line: If you don't want it to go public, don't post it.

I woke up one morning a few years ago to discover that the privacy settings on ALL my Facebook photo albums had been reset to Public. It happened to a few other friends as well. It was a lot of work resetting everything, but it was also a wakeup call. I can build a wall around my content, but it's a flimsy one.

I'm waiting for the day when a disgruntled Facebook employee, on his way out the door, flips a switch that resets everyone's privacy settings and throws all our content out into the public eye. I'm sure it isn't that simple, but if you rely on those settings to keep your kids' photos away from public eyes, or posts about your ex hidden from him/her, consider that you're trusting the safety of that content to software written by total strangers—and it must work correctly.

Hospitals across the country all have stories of employees who carelessly tweeted, Instagrammed or otherwise posted something that seemed funny or harmless at the time, but not to the patient or grieving family member who came across it. It isn't unprecedented, but it's completely preventable.

Patients and their families care. Future employers care. If the opinions of those people make a difference in your life, get to know the social media we all take for granted.

In the coming weeks, I'll write in more detail about how to take control of your social media privacy.

Susanna French is Dartmouth-Hitchcock's social media specialist. Helping our patients by empowering employees to become active in social media is one of the main reasons she loves her job.