Digital Footprints

When FaceBook made the mistake of making too much of their users’ data public, enough of them spoke up about it to get the company to apologize and change its data sharing practices. More recently, the search company Ask also made a change in its treatment of user data; it now allows Ask users to erase their search history. While Ask may be doing this strictly because it cares about its users, it is also seen as a way to highlight the difference between Ask and the other major search companies which store user search data. Also in the search arena, Google is still under scrutiny for its proposed acquisition of DoubleClick; some are concerned that this merger would place too much user data in the hands of one company. These examples seem to indicate that user data and online privacy are taken very seriously by Internet users.

In an era when the Internet is commonly turned to for day-to-day tasks, and in which, via social networking and blogs, users willingly place personal information in the (more or less) public sphere, it makes sense that there is concern about one’s “digital footprint.” At the same time, however, the opposite can be said to be true. Users are now getting more comfortable entering data online and making the private public. The recent Pew Internet & American Life Project report, Digital Footprints: Online Identity in the Age of Transparency, takes a close look at the scenario.

According to the report, now more than ever, Internet users are employing search engines to look up information about themselves. (Taken by itself, this could lead to the conclusion that there is concern about what someone else may be able to find.) However, it is also reported that the majority of users who search for information about themselves do so at most only on occasion, and that they are not concerned about what is out there.

The percent of users who have searched for information about themselves online has more than doubled in the past five years, from 22 percent in 2001 to 47 percent at the end of last year. Sixty percent of users state that, “they are not worried about how much information is available about them online.” A similar number, 61 percent, “do not feel compelled to limit the amount of information that can be found about them online.” It might be good for them not to be concerned, as 60 percent of those that have searched for information about themselves have found it.

Some in the press are making a big deal about the increasing number of users checking up on themselves, that the number has doubled to nearly half of all users is noteworthy. Others are surprised that the number is not significantly higher, isn’t it such an obvious thing to do, even if just for fun? The idea that half of Americans have Googled themselves is an interesting piece of data to play with, but the fact is that it is not something the vast majority does with frequency. While 74 percent of users reported having checked up on themselves once or twice, less than a quarter do so even “every once in a while,” and only 3 percent execute this type of search with regularity.

It is interesting to note that according to the report, users look themselves up online only slightly less than others look for information about them. Though 47 percent look for information about themselves, only 53 percent look for information about others. While this may seem to justify the idea that it is good to know what is out there about oneself, most often people are only seeking contact information. Seventy-two percent of users have looked for the contact information of others while only 28 percent have looked for someone else’s personal background information.

All this said, there is a growing number, though still in the minority, who feel a need to limit the amount of information found about them online. Thirty-eight percent, “say they have taken steps to limit the amount of online information that is available about them.” This means that last year more people took this action than even looked themselves up five years ago. Looked at another way, more than half the number of people who looked themselves up once or twice (74 percent), have felt compelled to limit what could be found.

Further Reading:


Study Highlights Realties of Reputation 2.0, December 18, 2007
More powerful search engines have made it easier to find a match for a personal name search, and the increasing popularity of blogs, YouTube, Flickr, and other similar sites has increased the size of people’s digital footprint online, but the new Pew study found that few adults have made identity management a routine part of their online lives.

Pew Report Highlights Need for Online Identity Management in Google Search Era
ChannelWeb, December 17, 2007

A Pew Internet & American Life Project study has found that 60 percent of online users are not worried about the data available about them online in an era when “Googling” for personal or business information has become commonplace

Pew Survey: Half of Us Have Looked Up People We Know on Internet
San Francisco Chronicle, December 17, 2007

About half of the online adult population has looked up themselves or someone else online, according to a survey released Sunday. A good 36 percent said they have searched the Web for someone with whom they’ve lost touch, and 9 percent have dug up information on someone they were dating.

Googling Yourself: Not as Vain as Some Think, Say Researchers
Ars Technica, December 16, 2007
The general population is doing a much better job of keeping track of what personal information shows up online, but there’s still a lot of room for improvement. Almost half (47 percent) of all Internet users have performed a self-Googling—more than double the number from five years ago—according to a new report by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. However, few of those people check with any regularity, and over half of Internet users still have not checked up on themselves even once.


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