Response – Pew Internet Reports: Digital Footprints

Good read! I’ve followed the concept of a digital footprint, more on the side of “Personal Branding” for a while now, especially since being laid off. I was happy to see quite a few of my curiosities studied, such as actively trying to create a digital footprint or what it means to have a very common name.

The changing nature of personal information.

The fact that awareness of one’s digital footprint has risen from 22% to 47% in just five years is very telling – especially since those five years were 2002-2007. I’d imagine that with the explosion of social networking between 2007 and 2009 that this level of growth has continued in an even shorter amount of time. But we’ll get into that later.

Reading the in depth analysis of findings exposed, to me, some of the flaws not necessarily with the methodology, but rather the way in which the study was conducted and presented. For example, the second paragraph of the entire report talks about a “survey fielded one week after 9/11 found that percentage [who prefer not to be monitored at work] had dropped to 40% of adults” from 65% in 1994. While this is a significant drop, it’s definitely insinuated that this was strictly due to the 9/11 terror attacks. But without reporting data for the seven years prior, we can’t tell if this was an immediate reaction or the result of a trend. I’d imagine the truth is somewhere in between, but it’s presented as the former.

The nature of personal information is changing in the age of Web 2.0.
This header is probably the most important bit of information in this entire piece. I don’t necessarily think that there is a deterioration of privacy with the advent of new media, per se, but rather a shift in what we consider private. It’s also not necessarily that more information is out there in terms of public records – it’s that this same information is now easy to find as opposed to the “needle-in-the-haystack” approach of yesteryear.

Obvious understatement of the century: “The reputation economy creates an incentive to be more open, not less. Since internet commentary is inescapable, the only way to influence it is to be a part of it. Being transparent, opening up, posting interesting material frequently and often is the only way to amass positive links to yourself and thus to directly influence your Googleable reputation.” This is old marketing and PR knowledge, mind-numbing to any of us that have worked in the industry. Control the story about you as opposed to letting someone else do it? Yes, of course. But this does set up the distinctions of active digital footprints and passive digital footprints.

Getting back to the privacy and the shift of what is considered private data, Esther Dyson’s quote accurately describes what needs to be done to manage an entity’s active digital footprint. “We need to stop talking about privacy and start talking about control over data.” Simply put, the larger, more accurate and positive, and more reputable your active digital footprint is, the less likely it will be for a passive digital footprint to sneak up and spoil one’s overall digital footprint.

Searching for Self: “Curiouser and Curiouser”

Again, I have a slight issue with the way in which this data is presented. Since the concept of creating and managing a digital footprint has already been discussed, boldly stating that “The vast majority of self-searchers (74%) have checked up on their digital footprints only once or twice.” My thoughts: if you properly manage the information you put online (if you post regularly) or if you are one of the many people with little to no information online that needs to be managed, how often do you really need to be checking? 74% is pretty solid, and I’m sure the number has grown in the past two years.

The public personae is a different story, and I think that many of us in the New Media Studies program fit this type. Clocking in at 11% in 2007, I’d imagine this number has grown significantly higher due to 1) natural trending and 2) unemployment. My prior jobs did not require me to self-present or self-market online, and doing so would have had only a negligible effect. But – if you consider job-seeking a form of full time “employment” – that number is sure to skyrocket considering the economic collapse of 2008-2009. Those who once had no need to self-market online now must self-promote to stand out positively from the many others applying for the same gig. It’s good training for being employed though.

One in five working adults in the U.S. say their employer has policies or guidelines about self-presentation online. This brought to mind the recent firestorm regarding the Washington Post’s policy regarding their journalists’ use of Twitter, and the backlash they received. Again, this report in 2007 covered it to a decent extent, but if this were in 2009, there would have been a much larger segment. The record industry and the print journalism industry are terrific examples of those who try to smash that which they do not understand as opposed to working with it. I’d love to see a follow up on this subject.

Another testament to the legitimacy of new media is that “87% of self-searchers…say that most of what they find is accurate, up from 74%…in 2002.” As more and more people manage their digital footprints, this number will continue to rise. Of the small amount of the sample who found inaccurate information, after reading some of the examples, my opinion is that many of these inaccuracies could have been avoided.

Measuring Our Online Footprint: The trails of 2.0

I’d like to see a study done, or at least a follow up, regarding the 24% of users who say that “things they’ve written that have their name on it are available online.” My point of curiosity is that this includes blogs – many of which are anonymous, contain a pen name, or are done in sort of an alter-ego format. For example, I have a very common name (which I’ll get into later with the study). Thus, finding things I’ve written or commented on may be tricky to find – unless you use my unique handle. I wonder if this would be the case for others with common names, and what it would do to these statistics.

The concept of first degree and second degree personal information is similar to the active/passive footprint concept. Spurred by the explosion of social networking and the tagging reatures embedded within, the amount of second degree personal information continues to grow. Just out of curiosity, I looked up the current Alexa rankings for the social networking sites listed. Since 2007, Myspace has fallen to #11 (from #3), Facebook has jumped to #2 (just behind Google) and LinkedIn has surprisingly dropped to #57 (from #34 in 2007).

College-age users, according to Fred Stutzman at UNC-Chapel Hill, are best at protecting hard contact information – addresses, phone numbers, etc. But as he notes, social network security settings may lull those users into a false sense of security with other online areas. “Findability” decreases with the number of hard “anchor points” that a person has, and with the shift towards mobile untethered technology, the younger generations tend to have fewer of these.

Searching for Others: Forget the Phone Book

Well, yeah. Forgetting the phone book has been done long ago.

Searching for other people, be it a necessity, curiosity, or voyeuristic tendency, has become a key part of web culture today. But breaking down the psychology of the numbers contained within this report could get even more interesting. “Internet users under the age of 50 are much more likely to say they have used a search engine to find information online about other people.” I’d say this is mostly due to the fact that by age 50, you’ve got your life and the people around you pretty well set. I think that the 30-49 age group that leads the way in people searching is due to the parenting age, as well as the notion that they have “lived long enough to have lost track of friends and are also savvy enough to use the internet to rekindle those relationships.” Those in this age bracket are also searching for people who their children will be around – babysitters, neighbors, school administrators and teachers, etc. As I pointed out in my blog about medical searches from a prior Pew report, often times these searches are done on behalf of someone else. I’d imagine the same holds true for a people search.

Managing Identity: Approaches and Attitudes

The four types of approaches and attitudes regarding concern over information online may be shifting. Watch for a shift in this figure as digital footprints become easier to manage, possibly through user-centric software. “Among internet users who worry about their personal information, just over half (54%) say they take steps to limit the amount of personal information that is available about them.”

Of these four types, the Confident Creatives, the Concerned and Careful, the Worried by the Wayside, and the Unfazed and Inactive, I (and probably most of us here) fit into the Confident Creatives. I mean, we’re all blogging, right? Those with the know-how to create and manage a digital footprint likely take control of the information – hard information that is – available online. Of course, this is also where the concept of “personal branding” that I mentioned at the start comes into play. Most likely, this is important for a Confident Creative – and he or she will take the necessary steps to manage this properly.

The Worried by the Wayside group is surprising to me, as noted in the report. 43% of people worried about their information online used the web to find the same info about other people? Pot, kettle, black. You know the story.

Looking Ahead: Persistent Presence Online

“What’s in a name? When it comes to anonymity, unique names may – or may not – smell as sweet.” Yep. Now is when I wish I wasn’t in the “Confident Creative” group of Online Personae. Having a common name is kind of a pain. I’d love for potential employers to see my blog, or read about me, but a Google search of Brian Miller turns up a host of other people that are not me. One thing I did to increase my Googleability was to create a Google Profile – which will always show up with my picture on the first page of rankings. (At least my Twitter page pops up fourth, although if you don’t know much about me, there’s not much distinguishing it from all the other results.) Brian W. Miller, however, returns my website at the top. So if I wanted to be anonymous, it’d be pretty easy. If not – that’s my situation right now. So please, Google me and click on my stuff so it increases my page rank. Heh.


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