The case of Gibbons and Jones demonstrates why it pays to think before posting inflammatory views in a live chat room. However, this can also apply to the less interactive world of web forums, not only because of potential consequences but also because, unless the forum owner has taken precautions, it's likely that Google will be able to see your posts – and therefore index them. This makes forums another very useful source of information for anyone trying to profile you, your online behaviour or your views.
Millions of forum conversations are started and added to each day, and heated arguments often break out. Many forum users have read enough bitter and prolonged flame wars over the years to know not to rise to the bait, so they don't bother getting involved. To an outsider such as a prospective employer, those who do become involved inflame wars might seem pathologically obsessive and malicious.
Though your user name might not immediately give your identity away, the things you write about and the personal details in your profile could. Many posters also use an identifying image of themselves when they post, and take the same distinctive user name for a number of different forums. This makes positive identification and subsequent cross-referencing simpler, especially if you also post details about your everyday life.
If you're an active and outspoken member of a forum that discusses local matters, it could be even easier for other locals – and indeed potential or current employers – to track you down from a combination of the geographical details you post, your stated age, user name and so on. A link to your personal homepage in your profile will also confirm your identity.
If you're worried about what you might have posted to a forum, it pays to 'ego surf' by typing your own name or forum user name into Google. If you find anything that shows you in a bad light – perhaps an angry post written in the spur of the moment, or a somewhat controversial post stating an opinion that you no longer share – then go back and edit it.
You could also contact a moderator at the forum in question, asking him to delete the offending threads,explaining that you regret your posts. Forum administrators and moderators, especially those associated with forums that rely on advertising revenue to pay the running costs, are usually pleased to help out with such requests.
The information people find about you online is who they believe you to be. To a potential employer, it may make you an unsuitable candidate; to the police it may make you a criminal; to a criminal it may make you a soft touch; and to the security services, it may imply that you're a threat to national security.
It's becoming a sad fact that the freedom to express yourself online is really the freedom for others to form an opinion about you based on limited information. For that reason, it's very wise to think before you post.
First published in PC Plus, issue 273