The word footprint often conjures up visions of Mary Stevenson’s, “Footprints in the Sand” poem, set alongside a picturesque sunset over the ocean. In the poem, the author’s Lord reveals to her that throughout her most troubled life events, when she thought she was abandoned and alone, she was actually being carried.
If only we could count on someone carrying us through our most troubled digital times as well, we wouldn’t feel so marked and exposed when we realize the digital footprints we have left behind.
According to Merriam-Webster, the word footprint means: a track or mark left by a foot or shoe; a marked effect, impression or impact; something that identifies; and, the area on a surface covered by something. One could sum up the word footprint to entail anything that marks an existence in space where there had been nothing in its place previously. The current use of the word footprint actually has very little to do with feet and more to do with what is left behind in one form or another. The word itself has outgrown its literal meaning and has taken on a figurative undertone that can be applied to almost everything.
The problem with adopting the word footprint in our lexicon is that it is often accompanied by a negative connotation. There are ecological footprints, carbon footprints, water footprints and slavery footprints. Footprints are what detectives used to follow at crime scenes and criminals are booked with a fingerprint. All of these footprints assume a certain degree of non-responsibility or self-indulgent actions. They all leave a negative marked impact upon society or the environment, which implies guilt and corroboration.
The latest footprint to jump on the negative and destructive bandwagon seems to be digital footprints. Although, the effects of our digital footprints are not as physically harmful to the environment as other ecological footprints are, they can be equally toxic to our futures. Similar to other linguistic references, digital footprints, from their inception, are assumed to be negative and indelible marks left in the online world. They are to be edited, erased, deleted, hidden, feared and respected because nothing is private anymore. Digital footprints encase what we are guilty of through the eyes and judgments of others. Digital footprints have us all starting out in a position of powerlessness because we are beginning from a place of fear: fear of employment reprisal, fear of educational discontinuation, fear of social malfeasance, fear of personal exposure. Semantics can do this to a word; it can give it (and us) power or it can take it away.
Why can’t we instead engage with the digital world from a position of empowerment and authority rather than apprehension? We cannot take back the place where our digital interactions exist, as there is no going back to online privacy, but we can take back the place from which they arise: our minds. We can, and should, become more in tune with our thoughts, as that is what we actually leave behind when we occupy space in the digital world. We don’t leave behind a footprint; we leave behind a thoughtprint. These thoughtprints are what truly identify us and mark our existence in this new world; and they do it much more permanently than impressions left upon the physical earth.
What we contribute to the online world is not simply a collection of our thoughts, but a reflection of our self-beliefs, our self-perception, the identity we hold of ourselves in relation to others and our ability to metacognate. The imprint we leave behind is much deeper than that which would come from a foot, and is much more representative of who we are, and can be, as individuals. A simple shift in semantics when describing the print we leave behind in digital space might provide an opportunity to reflect upon whether this is the mark we want to leave on the world. Rather than suffering the personal ramifications of having a passive digital footprint, why don’t we reap the rewards of promoting an active digital thoughtprint?
Much of what exists today on social media can reveal much about not only the content of a person’s life, but also the concept of their self-image. Frequently, online spaces are used for personal venting, social posturing and comparing, mainstream idolatrizing, look-at-me attention grabbing and relational outpouring in search for common human experience. Social media and blogging serve a beautiful purpose in connecting humans to one another and have contributed greatly to the advancement of humanity, but oftentimes that purpose is abused in a grandiose and egotistical fashion. Digital footprints come from a mental place of unconscious and self-serving behavior. Digital thoughtprints come from a mental space of concerted reflection and conscious action.
In order to take a more proactive stance on leaving behind positive digital thoughtprints rather than contaminated digital footprints, we can reflect upon an oft-used phrase from our childhood:
If you don’t have anything good to say, don’t say anything at all.
This does not just mean using kind and caring words, which is obvious online protocol. What it means is looking at the quality of the words you are leaving behind, not the quantity. Sometimes, less digital imprinting with words that carry more weight can be more powerful than a frequent presence with inconsequential discourse.
Before hitting “Enter” and imprinting our thoughts upon the digital landscape, we can reflect on the following:
Will the words, images, videos or links I share improve the knowledge base of my audience?
Will they help others to reflect and think at a deeper and more insightful level?
Will what I share or contribute help others grow and evolve as individuals?
Will my words drive expansion of thought, cause sparks of innovation, instill ethical or moral behaviors or modify choices and actions?
Am I contributing to an enhanced and educated society? Or, am I eroding mental capacities by dropping down the level of discourse, and thereby thought?
Am I clogging others’ feeds or am I contributing to them? Am I taking up space or taking advantage of it?
Would I rather tell Facebook what’s on my mind, or what’s in it?
In order to answer these questions, we might need to look a little more deeply at our own values and beliefs: Who am I at my deepest level? What do I represent? What do I have to share with this interconnected web of other thoughtprinters? What is my sentence?
If we begin to focus on these questions, we engage at a deeper level of thought about why we interact with social media. When we start to reflect on why we post, comment, tweet, link or visit, we can more fully engage with the how, thereby leaving a more responsible and representative mark in the online world. In essence, we begin to reflect instead of react, and in doing so, our thinking and a more accurate portrayal of our true selves is revealed. This empowered and intentional walk traverses not down a sandy beach at sunset, but through our metacognitive minds to explore the who and the why behind what we share. We take back control of our digital identities and we proactively contribute to a global matrix. We become thoughtprinters.