Digital Footprints: Public Writing and Social Identities

Mark Zuckerberg claimed in a 2010 interview that we all only have “one identity” (as cited in Mainwaring, 2010). But as we have witnessed social networking sites (SNSs) set up shop across vastly different communities for vastly different purposes, it has become clear that Zuckerberg cannot be right. While there may be similarities found in an individual’s Facebook, LinkedIn, and Ravelry profiles, the differing target audiences, interfaces, and SNS purposes make it easy for an individual to create and express a plurality of social identities.

Though the concept of social identity is not new, social networking and new media technologies have extended our understanding of social identities. Furthermore, writing plays a significant role in the various online spaces we use to create our individualized digital footprints, that is, the digital trail of data that we leave behind when interacting in or with online technologies Whether we write on Facebook to share with friends or families or on LinkedIn to connect with other professionals, the act of public writing should be executed with thought and critical consideration. With employers regularly looking to SNSs to tell them whether or not to hire prospective employees, it is crucial for individuals to be aware of not only what their social identities reveal about themselves but also how this information can be interpreted. A 2011 survey of hiring professionals reveals that 91% of employers do active screening of potential employees through social network sites, and 76% of the time they screen through Facebook, 48% through LinkedIn, and 53% with Twitter (Swallow, 2011). Additionally, “In June 2013, a nationwide survey by CareerBuilder found that more than two in five hiring managers (43 percent) who vetted applicants online did not hire an applicant based on information found online” (Jodka, 2013). Research shows that employers are intently looking at prospective employees’ social identities, but even if what they discover is not necessarily bad, employers may misinterpret what they find.

Likewise, a study on online relationships between employers and employees points out that “companies that screen applicants via social media may misunderstand online behavior, causing them to eliminate good candidates” (Ollier-Malaterre, Rothbard, & Berg, 2013, p. 648; Jodka, 2013). Hiring managers may misinterpret information found online because this information is often decontextualized. It is already clear that maintaining privacy in online spaces is highly difficult, if at all possible, to effectively manage. Thus, when hiring managers or other people in positions of power access digitally archived information (as in a Facebook timeline or Tumblr feed), this information is not contextualized for the viewer/reader, so they interpret that information in accordance with their own experiences. Because this information is not “tailored to the particular relationship or situation, [. . .] its original context and meaning may be skewed” (Ollier-Malaterre, Rothbard, & Berg, 2013, p. 648).

Despite the fact that public writing has become popular in the creation and performance of social identities, some people think little about what they write online. It is clear that poor choices in public writing influence employers in their hiring decisions. As this infographic shows, decisions to not hire have been made because prospective employees “posted inappropriate comments,” “demonstrated poor communication skills,” or “made discriminatory comments,” among doing other things (Swallow, 2011).

Employers scrutinize social identities for information related to their applicants. But employers are not the only ones using SNS as vetting tools. Bill Greenwood draws attention to the fact that “21% [of the 243] college and universities surveyed stated that they research and recruit potential students on social networking sites” (2009, p. 1). Then, when thinking about what digital footprints you want to leave behind, your choices when writing publicly should be carefully designed and executed.

Some public writing spaces on which students are active include the following:

  • Learning Management Systems (LMSs), such as Blackboard and Canvas
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn
  • Blogging sites (e.g., WordPress, Blogger, or Tumblr)
  • Discussion forums or wikis

The approach to public writing and the creation of social identities is no different than traditional approaches to writing: the writer should be aware of their audience, the publication venue (e.g., a newspaper, online blog, or academic journal), and purpose (i.e., why am I writing this?). When an individual creates a digital footprint (or regularly updates it), they need to be fully aware of these same things. However, regardless of these differences in SNSs, information posted is generally made available to the public, and “private” information can be accessed if an employer wants it.

With the rapidly growing number of SNSs, Internet privacy has become a contested area, and more and more SNSs are offering levels of privacy. Private or password-protected blogs have become more common, and some sites like Google+ and Facebook have made it possible for you to tailor and share information with specific groups of people. Furthermore, LMS blogs like those on Blackboard and Canvas are heavily secured sites, and what you write publicly in these spaces will only be visible to your instructor and classmates. In this way, Blackboard and Canvas writing are semi-public. The advantage to using the Blackboard and Canvas blog function is that while they work like other blog spaces, they provide more privacy.

Similarly, professional SNSs like LinkedIn and have gained popularity. The goal of these sites is to professionally network and share ideas, documents, or articles specific to professional identities. LinkedIn’s interface resembles a digitized version of a résumé or CV where users can list their educational and professional experience in addition to professionally relevant skills. is the academic version of LinkedIn and allows people working in academia to list their research interests and upload publications and current works-in-progress, as well as network similarly to LinkedIn.

Public Writing Etiquette

Many of us have sent a text message, email, or Facebook message that unintentionally offended someone because digital writing disallows the reader access to social cues, such as bodily and facial expressions and vocal tone. Before undertaking any type of digital writing, a writer should be aware of the way readers may perceive their words by taking precautions to avoid sounding offensive. These precautions are especially important when considering digital footprints and social identities because of the longevity of information posted on the Internet: some online writing spaces continue to exist years after the original posting date. When writing publicly, always ask yourself if your words reflect the person you want to be in ten, or even twenty, years. Even if you write something that you later delete, you should be aware that your posts can often be retrieved by archiving sites such as Be aware of Internet etiquette and norms—especially those particular to individual online writing spaces—and writing with those norms in mind will help you avoid publishing something online that you may regret and a troublesome digital footprint. Some general norms regarding Internet etiquette include:

  1. Respect the community. Interact with members of the online community in question in a way that reflects the treatment you would expect to receive. In other words, be nice.
  2. Listen to others. When someone presents an opinion that is different from your own, make an effort to understand that person’s perspective on the topic. Resist the urge to immediately tell someone they are wrong simply because their opinion differs from yours. Remember that many employers made the decision not to hire because a prospective employee may have made personal comments that the employer interpreted as objectionable.
  3. Be accountable for your actions. The perceived anonymity of online interactions causes some users to feel comfortable writing things they would not say in a face-to-face situation. Take responsibility for your actions and never write something online that you would not feel comfortable saying in person (Brantner, 2011). The Internet Protection Act, which requires web administrators to eliminate anonymous postings, is aimed at increasing accountability in online interactions.

Therefore, while there are many benefits to public writing, students must do so responsibly. Consider, for example, whether or not a specific form of electronic discourse (text speak, colloquial language, Internet jargon, etc.) is a viable and effective form of writing for a particular online forum. Remember that different target audiences prefer different forms of written expression, which is the benefit to having several social identities. Also, be sure not to include any material that would be considered unacceptable in the space in which you are composing. This does not mean that you cannot express your opinions within your own writing or in response to others, but you should express your opinions in a caring way that shows respect for those opinions that differ from your own.

Public Writing in Practice

Now that you have read about digital footprints and the potential negative implications of public writing in digital spaces, let’s practice applying what you’ve learned to two scenarios that you may have already encountered within Facebook and Twitter.

Scenario 1: Imagine that you are perusing your Facebook page around the time of an upcoming presidential election. You see that someone in your network has posted a comment in support of their favorite candidate, but you notice that the content of their post is biased and, in your opinion, misinformed. You are upset by the content of this post, and you aren’t sure how to proceed. Which of the following actions do you perform and why? Think about the potential implications of each action.

  1. Unfriend this person.
  2. Hide this person from your newsfeed.
  3. Ignore this post and move on with your day.
  4. Comment on this person’s post.
  5. Send this person a private message.
  6. Other.

Scenario 2: Imagine that you are on Twitter, reading through tweets that contain hashtags associated with trending topics. One of the trending topics deals with a recent news story that has gained international attention and you come across a tweet that uses racial epithets to describe the persons involved in the case. While you agree with the content of the tweet, you don’t agree with the language used to describe those involved in the case. Which of the following actions do you perform, and why? Think about the potential implications of each action.

  1. Favorite it.
  2. Retweet it.
  3. Do nothing.
  4. Write your own tweet.
  5. Other.


When publishing online, be sure that you are respecting yourself, the members of your online community, others who may read your posts, and the writing space itself. Even though you create your own digital footprints and social identities, “Social media profiles [. . .] are not a reflection of one’s identity, as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg wants us to believe, but are part and parcel of a power struggle between users, employers/employees and platform owners to steer online information and behavior” (van Dijck 212). Remember that identities are created both inwardly and outwardly: while you maintain your own understanding of who you are, as identity research explains, your identities are also created by how others perceive and interpret you. In short, you should always strive to represent yourself professionally when publicly writing to critically control your digital footprints.


  1. Visit your Facebook profile page and locate a post, composed or shared by you, that you think might be potentially upsetting to either existing members of your social network or to secondary connections who might see your post. Write a short paragraph describing your initial intentions when composing or sharing the post. Additionally, reflect on how members of your audience might have interpreted your post in a way that you did not intend.
  2. Visit Twitter and examine the current trending topics. Within one of the trending topics, locate a tweet that you find offensive or that you think could be offensive to certain audiences. Write a short paragraphs describing your interpretation of the initial intentions of the tweeter. Additionally, revise the tweet to be more appropriate for Twitter’s audience, and justify your choices.


Brantner, E. (2011). The 11 rules of social media etiquette. Digital Labz. Retrived July 15, 2014 from

van Dijck, J. (2013). “You have one identity”: Performing the self on Facebook and LinkedIn. Media, Culture and Society, 35(2), 199-215.

Greenwood, B. (2009, Sept.). Facebook: The next great vetting tool? Information Today, 26(8).

Jodka, S. H. (2013, Sept.). The dos and don’ts of conducting a legal, yet helpful, social media background screen. Law Practice Today. Retrieved July 14, 2014 from

Mainwaring, S. (2010, May 6). Is Facebook really the one with the identity crisis? Retrieved July 15, 2014 from

Ollier-Malaterre, A., Rothbard, N. P., & Berg, J. M. (2013). When worlds collide in cyberspace: How boundary work in online social networks impacts professional relationships. Academy of Management Review, 38(4), 645-669.

Swallow, E. (2011, Oct. 23). How recruiters use social networks to screen candidates. Retrieved July, 14 2014 from