Online Reputation Management is fundamentally different from the organization of extracurriculars on an application, because ORM is less a single activity than it is a holistic approach to self-representation and an extension of one’s identity. Think of your digital footprint as the first handshake you offer anyone who wants to meet you: even if you are not actively engaging them, anyone with web access has the ability to actively encounter you through your digital footprint whenever they like. This should certainly impart a sense of responsibility on us to actively work to ensure that our digital footprint accurately represents us, but it should also be a thrilling opportunity: think of how much faster a movement like women’s suffrage would have caught fire with the help of the internet! We have at our fingertips a near-unfathomable tool for disseminating those ideas and issues which matter most to us; it is therefore essential as a moral imperative as much as a self-interest that we implement this tool proactively, and do not fall victim to the potential bad habits which the internet and its constituent factions can encourage.
It is this potentiation of bad habits which makes ORM critical for more discrete goals such as college admissions, because people often do not even notice that they are falling into internet habits which can lead to a less than impressive digital footprint when someone takes the time to look. To use just one example, consider Facebook. Zuckerberg’s brainchild is a brilliant, streamlined way of keeping in touch with a huge network of friends and acquaintances, while also presenting a framework with which to build an entire identity online – in other words, a nice, firm handshake for people looking to meet you. But the potential for self-promotion can lead to a slippery slope of narcissism, often times catching the casual user totally unawares. A few friends “liking” a comment or two of yours can quickly lead to a compulsion to make witty comments in an effort to accrue the most number of “likes.” This is a process which, over time, can totally misconstrue one’s value system and lead to a narcissistic mindset which substitutes the reward of a “like” for meaningful human interaction.
In this way, Online Reputation Management is far more integral than a cleanup approach for college applications. It may be more helpful to think of an enhanced college application as a wonderful byproduct of an effective ORM strategy. ORM is a mentality by which we can discipline ourselves to use the internet as a medium for putting forth the best of ourselves and positively contributing to an increasingly global community. In this sense, it cannot ever be too early to start thinking in terms of ORM, and indeed, the earlier we start to think about it, the more powerful and positive our digital footprint will be. One of the primary factors that Google and other search engines use to “weight” individuals is how long and how frequently they have had index-able content. Thinking about ORM in terms specifically in terms of college, on the other hand, may best be reserved to for the time at which college generally comes up on the radar (probably sophomore or junior year of high school).