In this lightning-fast Internet age, information spreads like wildfire.
Sometimes that's a good thing, and other times … well, it's not so hot -- especially if what's being spread isn't kind toward you.
Usually each of us is our own worst enemy when it comes to posting questionable content -- words and images -- about ourselves. But a new form of free speech sabotage may be emerging in which other people's comments and opinions are being posted about us.
The jury's still out on how much of this is going on, but one thing is for certain: Social networking sites are now the big rage, and if you're not careful they can pose a danger to your career.
Beyond the obvious giants like MySpace and Facebook, new online networks are cropping up and growing every day. They offer an ideal opportunity to gossip, often freely and viciously as anonymous users behind the screen.
Why should you care? Because what's online can jeopardize your career. In the workplace, all we have are our professional reputations, which can be comprised, in part, by our cyberreputations.
Not long ago, a woman I know posted pictures of herself in a bikini having fun during a vacation. She assumed this would be viewed only by her close friends. Unbeknownst to her, some new co-workers decided to check her out online and posted lewd comments beside the pictures. When she went to her profile, she was horrified. By no means did she lose her job -- she hardly did anything wrong -- but she felt her reputation was maligned. And she was horribly embarrassed to go to work.
This kind of unexpected scenario also affects high school students applying to colleges, because even college administration officers admit they often look at online profiles to determine the character of the people they're considering for admittance.
There are a few smart steps you can take to protect your online reputation:
NARCISURF: The first thing is to "narcisurf!" Do a search on yourself to find out what's out there about you. Look at what you've posted and what others may have posted about you.
RETHINK "PRIVATE": A lot of people say they can post whatever they want about themselves because their social networking profiles are set on "private," meaning only their approved friends can view content and post comments. But -- and this is a big but -- when you have 100 friends or 300 friends on your buddy list, that can no longer be considered private. So rethink what you define as "private" because it's likely that more people have access to your profile than you realize.
FIGHT BACK: If you find things in cyberspace about you that you want desperately removed, plan your form of attack.
If you don't get satisfaction from contacting the Web site, you should consider consulting a lawyer. Even anonymous postings can be traced to individual users, and cyberwriters can be sued for defamation. So if you're really concerned, the legal route may be the path to pursue.
Tory Johnson is the CEO of Women for Hire and the workplace contributor on "Good Morning America."