Your Web Presence Will Soon Be More Valuable Than Your Credit Rating
When employers first started looking up their potential new hires on social media sites, recent grads started deleting whole Facebook accounts. That was better than having a fully documented history of bad behavior, but in the near future people are going to have to do a lot better. A blank social media history is going to be a bad social media history. (See also: 9 LinkedIn Changes You Should Make)
The whole situation is directly analogous to credit ratings. Time was, a lot of people didn't even have a credit history — back when credit cards were a way to borrow money, rather than a mechanism for making payments. Plenty of people were proud that they'd never had to borrow money — figured it showed that they were responsible money managers. And often those same folks were terribly surprised when it turned out that having no credit history made it tough when they did want to borrow, such as to get a mortgage.
The reason was simple: lenders wanted to see a demonstrated capability to make monthly payments on time, and people who had never borrowed money didn't have a history that showed that. (See also: How to Build Credit From Scratch)
Very soon, having no online presence is going to be worrisome in just the same way. It's going to either mean that you're a complete nobody — or more likely, that your past behavior was so bad you couldn't clean things up by just deleting a few unwise posts.
Building a Good Web Footprint
There used to be a lot of articles on how to build a good credit history. (The advice usually boiled down to: borrow a little money, make the payments on time, make the last payment a little early.)
Now it's time for some similar articles on how to build a good web presence. We don't yet know what's going to be most important, but here are some ideas on how to get started.
Your web footprint should be built gradually, with posts spread out over time. Don't imagine that you can fake up a whole web history in a day, or even a few weeks. (For one thing, too many of the posts have hard-to-fake timestamps. But even aside from that, it's just hard to make up anything that has the richness of a real person's life, except by documenting it day-by-day.)
Your web footprint should make you look like an ordinary person, with various interests and a reasonable number of friends. A nice mix of posts — some quotidian updates liberally laced with quirky vacation stories, some links to interesting articles, photos with friends and with family, likes of local businesses — is going to look much better than two hundred posts all on the same topic (even if the topic is relevant to the job you're trying to get).
Your web footprint should make you look engaged. In addition to your own content, you should like and share other people's content — and you should have content that other people like and share. Don't look like you think you're above everyone else; don't look like nobody likes you. (See also: Why You Should Cultivate Relationships)
Your web footprint should make you look unique and quirky — but like a good person. Don't have posts that make you look cruel or abusive. It's fine to have some stories about misadventures, but don't make yourself out to be stupid or incompetent. (Especially, don't make yourself out to be a criminal or a drunk.)
Your web footprint shouldn't all be one place. Right now, probably the most important web presence to have is on Facebook, followed by Twitter, and then Google+. But there are dozens of other places where it's worth being engaged: Reddit, Pinterest, Tumblr, Flickr, Delicious, StumbleUpon, your own blog, etc. There's no telling what the next big thing will be. Fortunately, there's no need to be on the next big thing. Just make sure your whole web presence isn't all on one site — a lot of sites are going to disappear (or worse, become a joke for the people who have moved on to the next big thing).
A Web Presence Is Cheaper Than an Interview
The first time I was interviewed for a job, I was surprised at how little time was spent talking about my qualifications, and how much time was spent just talking. Only years later — after I started doing interviews myself — did I come to understand. By the time you get to the interview stage, the employer has already decided that you have the skills to do the work. In the interview, they're trying to figure out if you'll fit in. They want to make sure that you're not a jerk or a flake. But interviews are expensive — and however limited the picture of someone that you'll get from their web presence, it's often enough to spot the jerks and the flakes. (See also: 13 Ways to Make a Good Impression at Your Job Interview)
If your web footprint makes you look like a jerk or a flake, interviews are going to be few and far between. But if your web footprint is so sparse that someone taking a good look at it comes away without any strong sense of the sort of person you are, there's every reason to fear that you won't get the benefit of the doubt. They'll just look at the next guy, and the guy after that. Soon enough they'll find someone with enough of a web presence that they feel like they've got a sense of the guy. That's the applicant they'll call in for an interview.
Make sure your web footprint doesn't make you look like a jerk or a flake — and make sure it's dense enough that it looks real, and not like the creation of a few days of trying to fake something up (or a lifetime of bad behavior with all the bad posts hidden).
Beyond the Job Search
Your web presence already matters in your job search, but soon it's going to matter for everything. Lots of interactions are already heavily reliant on social media reputation — dating (especially online dating, but also real-life dating), doing freelance work, selling second-hand goods, and so on. Credit scoring won't be far behind, and probably getting insurance as well.
Time to get ready for it.
Are you actively maintaining your online reputation? Has your online persona helped or hurt you?