Whether you're looking to hide your personal activities from prospective employers or you just don't want last Friday's naked wood-chopping contest making the rounds on the internet, getting rid of embarrassing online photos, videos and messages can be tough. Here's how you can take action when you want to purge the internet of your shameful content and maintain your upstanding online reputation.
Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt famously said, "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place." His advice probably is your best course of action if you never want to be embarrassed again in your life, but it's also a good way to never have fun again. In fact, for most of us, there are certain embarrassments we're happy to share with certain folks but not others. At some point we've all had something to hide, but the internet makes that difficult. In this post we're going to take a look at how you can retake your privacy (or at least greatly improve it) and control your online reputation.
First we'll take a look at Facebook, the most popular social network on the planet and subsequently home to some of your most embarrassing photos, public arguments and so on. Then we'll look at controlling what shows up on the web in general.
Get Embarrassing Content Removed from Facebook
Facebook wants to be the place where you share everything, but there are some moments in life you'd probably rather keep private. You can certainly prevent yourself from posting embarrassing drunk photos or a love letter you sent to a crush in high school, but you can't control other people. When a friend, family member, or enemy posts content you don't want anyone to see, here are the steps you need to take to get it removed.
Stage One: Use Facebook's Built-in Content Removal Tools
While Facebook won't let you delete content uploaded by another person, it will allow you to ensure it doesn't show up anywhere on your profile, wall or photo stream. It's very easy to un-tag yourself in wall post by clicking the little gear icon that appears when you hover over a particular message. This gear's drop-down menu will give you three useful choices: remove from profile, remove tag and remove/mark as spam. The differences between these three options are relatively minor. If a post is only showing up on your wall because you were tagged in it, removing the tag is enough to make it disappear from your page. If someone posted to your wall, specifically, you'll want to remove the post from your profile. If the post or tagged message on your wall is an ad or something that very much doesn't belong on your profile and comes from somebody you don't know, you'll want to mark it as spam instead. You could also use this option to get back at someone who deliberately tried to embarrass you, because they can get in trouble with Facebook if they have enough messages designated as spam, but that's not a very nice thing to do.
In the event that the problem photo is not terribly extreme, however, and you just don't want it showing up as one of the top five photos on your profile, you can remove it very easily. Just hover over that photo's thumbnail on your page and click the little "X" that appears in the top right corner.
These are the most common types of embarrassing content you'd want to remove and report, but Facebook provides similar tools for just about anything on the site. For instructions on dealing with embarrassing groups, fake profiles and more, check out Facebook's content reporting FAQ.
Stage Two: Ask Your Friend to Remove the Embarrassing Content
Once you've done everything you can using Facebook's privacy tools, your next step should be to talk to the person who posted the embarrassing content regardless of your relationship. Even if you don't get along with the poster, s/he may be willing to remove it if you make a simple, kind request. Send them a polite message on Facebook requesting removal. Even if you get no response or a refusal, asking kindly demonstrates that you made a reasonable effort to get the content removed yourself. Be sure to take screenshots of the message should you need a copy sometime down the road.
Stage Three: Contact Facebook
There are many reasons a friend, enemy or family member will want to keep the embarrassing content on their profile. If you've tried to reason with them and this content still upsets you greatly and Facebook's automated methods have gotten you nowehere, you can try to contact Facebook with a complaint. Unfortunately, Facebook does not provide an official means of actually contacting a human and doesn't promise a response. That said, you still have a few options:
- Post in the help discussions to get advice from other Facebook users and occassionally from Facebook staff.
- Submit a complaint via the Facebook Intellectual Property Infringement Form. In the event the offending content is a photo, you can report that you did not give the person posting this photo permission to use your likeness in any way and want it removed.
- Submit a complaint via the Facebook Terms Violation Reporting Form. This form was designed to help people who can't access their accounts and need a means of getting help. You're supposed to use the aforementioned help discussions in the event you can still log in. If you're having issues with content removal, however, the help discussions may not be too helpful. Rather than give up, open a private browsing session or log out of your Facebook account to access this page and submit your issue.
- Send an email to [email protected]. Back when Facebook provided proper email support you'd reach them via this address. This address seems to be active, but few people have had any success in using it. If you're completely out of options, use it as a last-ditch effort.
For more ways to contact Facebook regarding specific issues, check out this note.
Stage Four: Beef Up Your Privacy Settings
If you don't want embarrassing content posted on your profile page or wall, take preemptive measures and block it in advance. Facebook allows you to prevent others from posting to your wall and more, so if you're concerned about a particular individual or group of people just block certain privileges in advance.
To do this, you need to start by accessing your Privacy Settings. These are easy to find by going to the top right part of any page and clicking on the downward facing triangle (pictured to the right). This will reveal a menu where you can click Privacy Settings. From there you have a few relevant options.
How You Connect is the first and possibly only section you're going to need. Towards the bottom you'll find options allowing you to limit who can post on your wall and see wall posts by the people you allow. Setting this to "Friends" is often a safe bet, so only your public messages are visible and only you can see content contributed by others. Alternatively you can choose "Custom" and give access to only people in a specific Facebook List. While this won't remove the content, it'll make it much harder for people to actually find.
The How Tags Work section provides you with several options to help prevent unwanted tagging of photos, messages, and more. You can turn on "Profile Review" and "Tag Review" so that you get to approve every tag before it's allowed to become active.
Finally, the Manage Blocking section will allow you to block users from interacting with you in any way. You'll find this option at the bottom of the page and will only want to use it in extreme circumstances. It's important to remember that while it will prevent them from tagging you in embarrassing content, it won't prevent them from posting it.
For more Facebook privacy tips, be sure to check out our always up-to-date guide on managing your Facebook privacy.
Remove or Bury Unwanted Search Results
The fastest way to drudge up embarrassing information about anyone — whether they're on Facebook or not — is by hitting up your search engine of choice (although there are plenty of other methods). When your own shameful content shows up in Google, you can't always get it removed but there is plenty you can do to bury it.
Step One: Attempt to Get the Content Officially Removed
When you want embarrassing content out of a search engine, it helps to start at the source. Contact the website where the content resides and simply ask them to remove it. Once it's off the site it'll fall out of the search results in due time. In the event the website won't comply or you just want to be doubly sure your content won't show up, you can send a request to the search engine to have it removed. Most search engines offer this service. Here are instructions for Google, Google Images and Bing. Some smaller search engines, like Duck Duck Go, have a standard contact form for all issues. If the page with embarrassing content is actually one you made, however, Bing has a support document that shows you how to tell search engines to avoid indexing it. When it's your pages that you don't want showing up in search results, follow those instructions.
In extreme situations, you can submit a legal complaint to Google. Google tends to respond to these legal complaints with quick removal, not taking much effort to investigate. This can be good for you if you want something removed, but bad for the person whose page is being removed as the appeal process can take a long time. You don't want to go this route unless someone is using your likeness without your consent, using your work without permission, defaming you, or potentially breaking the law in another way.
Step Two: Bury the Unwanted Content So Nobody Can Find It
When it comes to hiding something you don't want others to see, "noise" can be your best friend. One embarrassing photo is very easy to see when you're staring right at it, but when it's beside tons of other photos it gets lost pretty quickly — especially if you have to scroll on and on just to figure out where it is. If you can't get rid of something in a search engine, your best bet is to create more interesting and legitimate content to push it down and out of the way.
One of the easiest way to make this happen is to create profiles and pages on popular social sites like Twitter, YouTube, Vimeo, Flickr, Google+, Blogger and so on, so your content will be indexed and show up in search results. Just be sure to use your real name so that the videos, photos, messages or whatever you post are associated with that name.
As we've previously discussed, registering your name as a domain name and putting up a name plate website can help you reclaim what shows up in your search results. Just be sure to add links to your website on other social sites to help increase its page rank.
You'll need to actually manage your online reputation once you have it set up so your content rises above the embarrassing stuff you can't destroy. This doesn't require much more than actually using the services you sign up for and posting only things you want others to see. If you have a problem posting responsibly, install Internet Shame Insurance to get a warning before you post content you'll regret.
How About You?
Personally, I like to keep my embarrassments alive and well on the internet but I have quite a few friends who have struggled with the problem of eliminating theirs. It can be a long process to cover up the stuff you don't want others to see even if you do know what you're doing. Have you gone through the trouble of keeping your online persona pristine and shame-free? If you have any additional tips or stories to share, you know where to post them! (If you don't, actually, that place would be the comments.)