Pew Report on Digital Footprints

10 years ago

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A new report from Pew Internet gives us the latest information on Digital Footprints: Online identity management and search in the age of transparency. This is a 50 page document, so I'll just point out a few of the highlights.

The first conclusion deals with the proliferation of personal information.

The nature of personal information is changing in the age of Web 2.0.

The more content we contribute voluntarily to the public or semi-public corners of the Web, the more we are not only findable, but also knowable.

The leading conclusion that has made it to the mainstream news media is:

Internet users are becoming more aware of their digital footprint; 47% have searched for information about themselves online, up from just 22% five years ago.

Men and women search for information about themselves in equal numbers, but those with higher levels of education and income are considerably more likely to monitor their online identities using a search engine.

I've got some hints for monitoring your identity at the end of the article. Stay tuned.

Following this news that more of us are trying to keep track of our digital footprints using search engines, comes the news that only about 3% do it with any regularity. It seems that most Internet users (60%) are not concerned about the amount of information available about them. Perhaps this is because the people who are searching for themselves are not finding much of interest.

Among those who have searched for their name online, 62% find that the amount of relevant information about them generally matches their expectations. One in five self-searchers (21%) are surprised by how much information they find online about themselves, while 13% express disbelief at how little information comes up in their results.

About 10% of all Internet users have a job that requires them to self-promote themselves on the Internet. Sometimes the type of information that an adult puts on the Internet depends on policies of an employer.

Interestingly, adults are more open and transparent with online profiles that teens.

- Among adult internet users who maintain an online profile, 82% say that their profile is currently visible compared with 77% of online teens who report this.
- Among adults who say they have a visible profile, 60% say that profile can be seen by anyone who happens upon it, while 38% say their profile is only accessible to friends.
- Teens with visible profiles make more conservative choices with respect to visibility; just 40% said their profile was visible to anyone, while 59% reported access that was restricted to friends only.

At apophenia, the blogger Danah Boyd commented,

Adults are more likely than teens to have public profiles on SNSs. 60% of adults are not worried about how much information is available about them online. (Of course, young adults are more likely than older adults to believe it would be "very difficult" for someone to locate or contact them.) 61% of adults do not bother to limit the amount of information that can be found about them (including many who are purportedly worried).

In other words, adults (and presumably there are parents in this group) are telling teens to be careful online and restrict what information they put up there while they themselves are doing little to protect their own data.

This reminds me of adults who tell their kids never to meet strangers online under any circumstances and then proceed to use online dating sites and, rather than meet in public places, choose to go to the stranger's private residence. Adults need to think about safety too - it's not a story of binaries. The safe and practical approach is somewhere between abstinence and uber risky behavior.

Many Internet users who search for personal identity information are searching for other people: long-lost friends, co-workers, potential employees, and people the searcher is in a relationship with. A whopping 72% of these searches are for contact infomation.

At Library Garden, there was a comment by a trainer of librarians and school districts.

It is just that, ever since I starting doing seminars for school districts and libraries on social networking sites and personal information search engines, a great deal of interest seemed to be generated on not only finding out what was “out there” on them and their “kids” but also on what they could do to protect themselves and others. I constantly get asked about this topic, at just about any type of Internet workshop that I host or present. Maybe many who do ask about it do fall into the “Concerned and Careful,” but that would not seem correct to me, given the concern that I have witnessed concerning the protection of minors and the prevalence of identity theft articles. Remember, the report states that “Just 38% say they have taken steps to limit the amount of online information that is available about them.”

... I guess I just think people online are more concerned with the making of and protection of their digital footprints, but it won't be the first time that my experience differs with the results of a study or survey.

I'm one of those the Pew Report terms Concerned and Careful. I use iGoogle to keep track of what's being said or linked to about me and my blogs. If you have a Google account, you can set up a personalized home page at Click "Add stuff" and find the things you want on this custom page. I added a couple of widgets called Google Blog Search.

Google widget for blog search

This widget can be set to search of links, names, or whatever else you want. Each time you visit your iGoogle home page, you see the latest hits on your particular search.

Google widget search results

As you can see, this one is set to look for my name. Anytime I'm mentioned on a blog, I know about it. You can also do a normal web search with an iGoogle widget. If you are interested in becoming more attentive to your digital footprint, this is a dandy way to keep an eye on things.

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