Photo by Julien Perron-Gagné via Infopresse

One thing about the digital age is that it’s made lying much more complicated. I learned my lesson recently when I told a friend I wasn’t feeling well, forgetting I had just checked into a bar on Facebook. Financier Marcus Schrenker learned this after he was caught faking his death because he forgot to erase his Google search history.

What’s clear is that the Web is so smeared with our digital fingerprints that we can’t hide anymore. That was the lesson delivered by Wired magazine reporter Evan Ratliff at Infopresse’s RDV Web conference in Montreal earlier this month.

Fascinated by Schrenker’s epic Web fail, Ratliff decided to see for himself if it was possible to “vanish” in the social media age. He disappeared from the real world while tech-savvy amateur investigators attempted to track him online. The experiment lasted less than a month before Ratliff was found in New Orleans, and forced to pay a $3000 reward to the person who caught him.

The folks at Dell can tell you that the lesson applies to brands as well. Until a few years ago, the computer company had no official presence on the social web. But when customers googled Dell, they’d be led to a complaint site called Dell Hell, set up by a disgruntled customer.

Dell learned the hard way that there’s no such thing as not being online. There’s already a conversation going on around your brand, so you might as well join it. The first step is finding the people who are talking about your brand. The next step is turning skeptics into fans, and fans into brand advocates.

That’s exactly what Dell did to get itself out of PR hell. Dell hired a dedicated corporate blogger who owned up to the brand’s poor service and worked to address individual customer complaints.

Now Dell had a human face and voice that people wanted to engaged with. And here’s the good news: Everyone knows that humans aren’t perfect so as brands become more human, they don’t need to be perfect either.

Nestlé learned this lesson last summer in the wake of a Greenpeace campaign accusing the brand of contributing to rainforest destruction. Initially, Nestlé’s social media team responded by snapping back at critics on Facebook.

By failing to use a basic social skill (being nice to your customer), Nestlé managed to alienate even more people. How did it resolve this social media crisis? By apologizing, like humans do when they make mistakes.

As Ratliff, Dell and Nestlé all discovered, hiding out on the Web is no longer an option. This can be challenging and scary for brands and individuals used to being in control of their identity. But it’s also an opportunity. Because when you think about it, there are worse things for a brand than having a whole bunch of people trying to find you.