May 26, 2010

Reputation Management and Social Media

Part 1: Managing the ever-expanding reach of our digital footprints

Searching for ourselves online

The majority of adult internet users (57%) now use search engines to find information about themselves online, up from 47% in 2006.

Internet users have become increasingly likely to use search engines to check up on their digital footprints. Since our last survey in 2006, search engines have vastly expanded their reach and now include everything from images and videos to real-time results on Twitter.

In the September 2009 survey, 57% of adult internet users said they had used a search engine to look up their name and see what information was available about them online. That marks a significant increase since 2006 when 47% of adult internet users said they had searched for results connected to their names online. However, that growth is more modest when compared with the 25-point increase that occurred between 2001 and 2006 (when self-searching jumped from 22% to 47%).

What has not changed over the years are some of the core demographic trends with this activity. Male and female internet users are equally likely to use a search engine to monitor their digital footprints. And internet users under the age of 50 are consistently much more likely to be self-searchers when compared with older users. Likewise, those with higher income and education levels are much more engaged than those in lower socioeconomic groups when it comes to monitoring digital footprints. In the latest survey, 70% of internet users with a college degree had conducted a search for their name compared with just 43% of those with a high school degree or less.

Adults under the age of 50 are still more likely than older adults to monitor their digital footprints.

Internet users under the age of 50 consistently surpass older online adults in their self-searching habits. In 2009, fully 65% of young adult internet users ages 18-29 said they had searched for results connected to their name online, up from 49% in 2006. Likewise, 61% of internet users ages 30-49 said they were self-searchers, up from 54% in 2006.

By comparison, less than half (47%) of internet users ages 50-64 have used a search engine to check up on the results tied to their name (up from 39% in 2006). About the same number, 45% of those ages 65 and older, use search engines to look up results connected to their names. However, that number represents significant growth since 2006, when just 28% of users age 65 and older had conducted a personal name search.

Searching for ourselves

The 2009 survey included interviews with both English-dominant and Spanish-dominant Hispanic adults. Self-identified Hispanic internet users in this sample were significantly less likely than white internet users to use a search engine to find results connected to their names online; just 40% of Hispanic internet users said they had done this, compared with 60% of white internet users. Half of African-American internet users (52%) said they had searched for results about themselves—a number that is not significantly higher or lower than other groups.

Most self-searchers continue to be casually curious; few monitor their footprints with great regularity.

Although there has been significant growth in the self searching population overall, most internet users do not regularly rely on search engines to monitor their digital trails. Among the 57% of internet users who are self-searchers, few make a steady habit of monitoring their online presence.1 In 2006, 74% of self-searchers said that they had used a search engine to look up their own name only once or twice. In 2009, 78% of self-searchers reported the same limited level of engagement. Just 2% say they use a search engine to look up information about themselves on a regular basis, and 19% say they do so every once in awhile.

Men who follow their digital footprints using search engines do so more often than women. One in four (26%) male self-searchers checks on results at least every once in awhile compared with 17% of female self-searchers who do the same. Interestingly, young adults who self-search largely say they have done so only once or twice (84% say this), while older self-searchers are somewhat more engaged. Three in four (75%) self-searchers ages 50-64 have checked up just once or twice, while 25% do so at least every once in awhile.

One in five (20%) adult internet users say they have used other websites to look up their name and see what information is available about them online.

While mainstream search engines are the starting point for nearly every kind of online query, those who monitor their digital footprints also employ site-specific searches on social media sites like Facebook and Flickr. While Google or Bing may cache the latest publicly available blog post that mentions your name, you may need to search elsewhere to see semi-public information that circulates within your personal social network. For the first time, we asked about these other searches, and found that 20% of online adults use other websites and internet services to look up their own name to see what information they find.

However, there is almost complete overlap between those who use those who use general search engines and those who search elsewhere. If you don’t use search engines to check up on your digital footprints, you most likely don’t check anywhere else. Looking at those who said yes to either question only increases the size of the self-searching group by one percentage point; 58% of adult internet users have searched online for information about themselves—either by using a search engine or conducting searches on other sites.

Online men are more likely than online women to search for information about themselves on other sites such as Facebook, Flickr and YouTube (23% vs. 18%). Again, internet users under the age of 50—who are bigger users of social media sites—are more likely than older users to conduct searches on these kinds of sites. One in four users in the under-50 group do so, compared with one in seven in the over-50 group.

When people search for themselves, the most prominent results are usually about someone else with the same name.

As we noted in the first Digital Footprints report, people can have very different experiences with online reputation management depending on whether they have a unique name or one shared with others. Likewise, people can become exceptionally visible in the search results connected to their names for a range of reasons—because of the public nature of their job, their contributions to a blog or their personal involvement in a newsworthy event, for good or for ill.

Most who are motivated to look do find some relevant results. Among those who conduct personal name searches, the majority (63%) say they find at least some relevant material connected to their name. By comparison, 35% of self-searchers say their queries do not yield any relevant results.

Indeed, most people enjoy some level of “privacy through obscurity” online. We asked self-searchers about the critical first page of search results that popped up when they queried their name, and how prominently their own name was in the results.  When self-searchers query their name using a search engine, 62% say the first page of results is mostly about someone else with a name very similar or identical to theirs. Just 31% of self-searchers say that most of the results on that critical first page are actually about them.2

Those with highly-ranked results could appear in a more prominent position for a variety of reasons, some of which may have to do with their job. Looking at the 31% of self-searchers who say that the first page of search results contains material that is mostly about them, a much higher percentage than average say that they are required by their employer to market themselves online (27% compared with 12% of all employed internet users).

Interestingly, while young adults are more likely to have posted a wide range of personal digital content online, the results connected to their real name are far more likely to be hidden slightly deeper in the haystack. Three in four (74%) self-searching young adults say that the first page of search results for their name primarily contains content about someone else. That compares with 62% of self-searchers ages 30-49, 51% of those ages 50-64 and 48% of those ages 65 and older.

The likelihood that someone will appear prominently in the first page of search results also tracks closely with education, but not income. More than one-third (37%) of self-searchers with a college degree say relevant results about them dominate the first page compared with just 21% of self-searchers with a high school degree or less.

Internet users employ a multitude of identities online, and many avoid using their real names.

While some of the content associated with our names online—such as our address, telephone number or real estate transactions—is made available without our direct participation, we also actively make choices about claiming authorship of the material we voluntarily share online.

Most internet users (54%) now count themselves among these content-contributing masses. They post comments, queries and other information online through blogs, social networking sites and other venues. Among those who have posted this kind of material, 45% say they usually post information using their real name. By comparison, an almost equal number (41%) say they usually post content under a username or screen name that people associate with them. This affords some level of obscurity for content creators because a viewer would have to know a user’s screen name in order to associate content with him. Just 8% say they usually post content anonymously.

Female content contributors are more likely than male contributors to say they usually post content online under their real name (49% vs. 41%). Likewise, male contributors are more likely to routinely employ a screen name when posting; 47% of men who post content usually do so with a username compared with 36% of women. However, there are no significant differences between the sexes when it comes to posting content anonymously.

Interestingly, social networking users are significantly more likely than non-users to say that they usually post content online using their real name. Half (49%) of SNS users say they usually share material using their real name, compared with 37% of non-SNS users. Similarly, they are less likely than non-SNS users to say that they typically post content anonymously. Just 5% of SNS users say they usually post comments, queries or other information anonymously, while 15% of non-SNS users report the same.

Multiple Identities Online: Half (49%) of SNS users say they usually share material using their real name, compared with 37% of non-SNS users.

One in four employed adults says their company has policies about how they present themselves online.

Employed adults are more likely than in the past to say that they work for a company that has policies about how they present themselves on the internet, such as what they can post on blogs and websites or what information they can share online. One in four (25%) employed adults say their company has a policy like this, up from 20% in December 2006. However, while 67% of employed adults say their workplace does not have such a policy, another 8% say they don’t know.

Looking at employed internet users, 27% now work for an employer that has policies about how they present themselves online—such as what they can post on blogs and websites or what information they can share about themselves. That compares to 22% who reported the same in 2006.

Those with higher levels of education and income are far more likely to say they are employed in workplaces that have these policies about self-presentation online. One in three (32%) college grads say they work for companies that have rules about how they present themselves on the internet, compared with just 18% of high school grads. Likewise, 29% of employed adults living in households earning $75,000 or more per year work for companies with such policies, compared with just 18% of those living in households earning less than $30,000 per year.

Just over one in ten (12%) employed internet users are “public personae” who say they need to market themselves online as part of their job.

Those who need to make information available about themselves online in order to market themselves for their job make up a unique segment of the internet universe. These “public personae” now make up 12% of the employed adult population, up slightly from the 10% who said they were required to market themselves online in 2006.3

In contrast to 2006, employed men are now considerably more likely to be in the position of having to promote themselves online. While 15% of employed men say they have a job that requires them to self-promote online, just 7% of employed women say this. This role of self marketing is also somewhat more common among younger adults; employed adults ages 18-29 are more likely than those ages 50-64 to say they have a job that requires self-promotion online (15% vs. 9%).

However, once again, education stands out as one of the most important indicators. Fully 19% of employed college grads say that they have to market themselves online for their job, compared with just 6% of high school grads.

Public personae stand out in a number of ways when it comes to reputation management online:

  • They are far more active in monitoring search results connected to their names; 84% of public personae use search engines to check up on their digital footprints, compared with just 55% of other employed internet users.Among those who search for themselves, 44% do so at least every once in awhile, compared with 20% of other employed internet users
  • They enjoy a higher ranking in search results; 47% of public personae who self-search say that the first page of results is mostly about them, compared with just 28% of other employed internet users.
  • They are bigger users of social media; 73% of public personae have created a social networking profile compared with 46% of other employed internet users. Likewise, 36% say they have used Twitter or another service to share updates about themselves, compared with 18% of other employed internet users. And almost one in three (29%) are bloggers, while just 11% of other employed internet users have created or worked on a blog.
  • They are more likely to request the removal of things that others post about them online. One in five (22%) public personae say they have asked someone to remove information about them that was posted online, including things like photos or videos, while just 6% of other employed internet users have made such a request.

What we think others can see about us online

As in 2006, we asked a battery of questions about the different kinds of personal information that may be available about the respondent online. The introduction to the question reads: “We’d like to know if any of the following information about you is available on the internet for others to see—it doesn’t matter if you posted it yourself or someone else posted it.” Respondents were also given the option to say that they did not know whether a given piece of information was available, and for many questions, respondents expressed a high level of uncertainty. While the affirmative answers paint a portrait of the user’s impression of what is available, they likely do not reflect the full extent to which these pieces of information could be uncovered by a motivated searcher. In addition, some of these items could be available publicly while others may be posted to a restricted profile or website.

Among employed internet users, 44% say that details about whom they work for are available online.

Close to half (44%) of employed internet users now say that details about whom they work for are posted online, up from 35% in 2006. Employed online adults who have higher levels of education and income are more likely than other internet users to say this information is available. For example, 53% of employed internet users with a college degree say that information about whom they work for is available online for others to see, compared with 36% of those with a high school degree.

Photos put a face to our digital footprints; 42% of internet users say a photo of them is available online, up from just 23% in 2006.

As participation in social networking sites has grown, so too has the posting of photos, which is a central element to profile creation. Overall, 42% of internet users say that a photo of them is available on the internet for others to see, which represents a huge increase from the 23% of internet users who said the same in 2006. Among SNS users, fully 71% say that photos of them are available online, compared with just 18% of non-SNS users.

For internet users, the prospect of having a personal photo displayed online decreases sharply with age. Looking at the standard age breaks, 68% of young adult internet users ages 18-29 say that photos of them are available online, compared with 44% of those ages 30-49, 24% of those ages 50-64 and 17% of wired seniors ages 65 and older.

However, among social networking users, the dropoff is much less severe; while 78% of SNS users ages 18-29 say that photos of them are available online for others to see, 65% of SNS users ages 30-49 and 66% of those ages 50 and older say that photos are available online.

Home broadband users are twice as likely as dial-up users to say that photos of them are available online (46% vs. 22%). Likewise, those with wireless internet access are more likely than those without to say that photos of them are posted on the internet for others to see (50% vs. 26%).

One in three (33%) internet users say their birth date is available online.

One in three internet users say their birth date is available online for others to see.4 However, 50% of young adult internet users say their birth date is posted online, compared with 33% of users ages 30-49 and about one in five users ages 50 and older. This trend may be tied to the inclusion of birth dates on social networking profiles; 51% of SNS users say their birth date is accessible online while just 18% of non-users say their birth date is available.

Likewise, among young adult SNS users, the numbers are even higher; fully 59% of them say that their birth date is available online. By comparison, 46% of SNS users ages 30-49 and 43% of those ages 50 and older say their birth date is posted online.

12% of internet users say their cell phone number is available on the internet for others to see, up from 6% in 2006.

While some people cautiously guard their cell phone number, 12% of internet users say their cell number is posted on the internet for others to see. That segment is twice as large as it was in 2006, when just 6% of internet users said their cell phone number was available online.

Male internet users are more likely than female internet users to say their cell phone number is accessible on the internet (15% vs. 10%). In keeping with the above trends, young adults are also more likely than older users to say that their cell phone number is available online. One in five (20%) report this, compared with 11% of internet users ages 30-49, 9% of those ages 50-64 and 7% of those ages 65 and older.

10% of internet users say a video of them is available online, up from only 2% in 2006.

One in ten internet users now say that video of them is available on the internet for others to see, which represents a five-fold increase since 2006. Unlike with photos, there are significant gender differences when it comes to video. Male internet users are more likely than female internet users to say that video of them is available online (13% vs. 7%).

As is the case with photos, young adults are far more likely than their elders to say that video of them is available online. One in four (25%) internet users ages 18-29 say that video of them is accessible on the internet, compared with just 6% of users ages 30-49 and only 2% of those ages 50 and older.

Among users of social networking sites, 18% say that video of them is available online, compared with just 2% of non-users. Nearly one-third (30%) of SNS users ages 18-29 say that video of them is posted on the internet for others to see, compared with about one in ten SNS users who are older than that.

Home broadband users are more than three times as likely as dial-up users to say that video of them is available online (11% vs. 3%). Similarly, those with wireless internet access are more likely than those without to say that video of them can be found online (13% vs. 3%).

Some pieces of information are now less likely than in the past to be reported as available.

While basic pieces of contact information like a home address and telephone number were among the top items reported to be available online in our 2006 survey, they are now surpassed by employer information and photos.

  • 26% of internet users say that their home address is available on the internet for others to see, down from 35% who reported this in 2006.
  • 21% of internet users say their home phone number is available online, down from 30% in 2006.

A number of items were essentially unchanged since the 2006 survey.

Several pieces of information were just as likely to be reported as available online in 2009 as they were in 2006:

  • 31% of internet users say that their email address is available online (compared with 32% who said this in 2006).
  • 23% say that things they have written with their name on it are available for others to see online (compared with 24% who reported this in 2006).
  • 22% say that information about the groups or organizations they belong to is available online (compared with 23% in 2006).
  • 12% say their political party or affiliation is available online for others to see (compared with 11% who reported this in 2006).

Many users express uncertainty about the availability of their information online.

A relatively large segment of the internet user population expressed uncertainty about the availability of various pieces of information online. Email addresses—which are often bought and sold and can be compromised by spammers–still evoke the most tentative responses; 32% of internet users say they don’t know whether or not their email address is available online for others to see.

A slightly smaller segment—about one in five internet users—say they are unsure whether or not their home address, birth date, home phone number or cell phone number are available online for others to find.

Infographic

Reputation management and social media: Our digital footprints

What we think others can see about us online

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Millennials report a much larger digital footprint compared with older generations.

When asked about the array of information that may be available about them online, Millennials (young adults ages 18-32) report a much larger digital footprint when compared with older generations.

Looking across the range of items we queried, internet-using Millennials were much more likely than older cohorts to report that at least five pieces of information were available online for others to see. One in three online Millennials (32%) reported this level of information sharing online, compared with 17% of Gen X, 20% of Trailing Boomers and 15% of Leading Boomers. Among the Silent Generation, 12% said at least five of these items were available, while 13% of the G.I. Generation reported the same.

One of the most notable differences is the extent to which images of the youngest generation—whether photos or videos–are shared online. The number of internet-using Millennials who say that photos of them are available online is more than double that of their parents’ generations.

Fully 65% of online adults ages 18-32 say that photos of them are available online for others to see compared with just 30% of Trailing Boomers and 24% of Leading Boomers. The same stark contrast is true of video; 23% of Millennials say that video of them is posted online while just 4% of Trailing Boomers and 2% of Leading Boomers say that videos of them are available for others to see on the internet. Even Generation X lags significantly when compared with the well-documented lives of the Millennials. Less than half (44%) say that photos of them are available, and just 4% say that video of them is online.

Nearly half of online Millennials say that their birth date is available online for others to see.

While including a birth date has become a standard feature on many social networking profiles, this can also be a critical piece of information used by identity thieves. Birth dates are used by many businesses, including credit grantors, as a password to permit account access or establish new accounts. One recent study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that the acquisition of a birth date, particularly when combined with location information for younger users, can be used to successfully predict social security numbers.5 And another recent study found that young Millennials, ages 18-24, are at the greatest risk for identity theft because it takes them longer to detect that their information has been stolen.6

Among internet-using Millennials, 47% say that their birth date is available online for others to see. That compares with 34% of Gen X internet users, 27% of Trailing Boomers and 22% of Leading Boomers who are online. Another 22% of internet users in the Silent Generation and just 14% of internet users in the G.I. Generation say that their birth date is available online.

Looking at Millennials who are social networking users, 57% say that their birth date is available somewhere online for others to see. However, the survey did not ask specifically about the inclusion of birth dates on social networking profiles.

While Millennials are more likely than older generations to say that their cell phone number is available online, they are less likely to say that their home address is posted online.

One in five internet-using Millennials who own a mobile phone (19%) say that their cell phone number is available online for others to see. That compares with about one in ten respondents from each older cohort who reported the same. However, just 18% of online Millennials said that they believed their home address was available online, compared with 31% of Gen Xers, 32% of Trailing Boomers and 28% of Leading Boomers. Among internet users in the Silent Generation, 34% said that their home address was posted online for others to see.

Generational Footprints

Those who are more visible online are more likely to be contacted by someone from their past.

By several different measures, internet users who are more visible online are more likely to say that they have been contacted by someone from their past who found them through the internet. Overall, 40% of all adult internet users have been contacted online by people from their past, up from just 20% in 2006.

Looking across all of the pieces of information we asked internet users about—from the availability of their email address to information such as their birth date—we created a count variable that allowed us to compare people according to the amount of information they reported as available online for others to see. Internet users who say that a large amount of information is available about them online (those who reported 5-11 items being available) were more likely than every other group to say that they had been contacted by someone from their past who found them through the internet. We looked at four groups according to their varying levels of visibility online:

  • 66% of internet users who reported that a lot of information (5-11 items) was available about them online said they had been contacted by someone from their past.
  • 53% of internet users who reported that some information (3-4 items) was available about them said they had been contacted by someone from their past.
  • 32% of internet users who reported that only a little information (1-2 items) was available about them said they were contacted.
  • 15% of those who said none of the items we asked about were available online still said that they were contacted by someone from their past who found them through the internet.

Social media users receive more contact from past connections.

Internet users who maintain profiles on social networking sites are almost four times as likely as non-SNS users to say they have been contacted by someone from their past (67% vs. 18%). Likewise, users of status update services like Twitter are far more likely to be contacted (65% vs. 34%), as are online daters (64% vs. 38%).

Interestingly, online men are more likely than online women to say they have been contacted (43% vs. 38%). And users under the age of 50—particularly young adults ages 18-29—are the most likely to report being contacted by someone from their past:

  • 55% of internet users ages 18-29 say they have been contacted, compared with:
  • 46% of internet users ages 30-49,
  • 25% of internet users ages 50-64, and
  • 20% of internet users ages 65 and older.

Looking at age variations among social networking users, the differences for those under age 50 disappear:

  • 68% of social networking users ages 18-29 have been contacted by someone from their past, compared with:
  • 69% of SNS users ages 30-49, and
  • 56% of SNS users ages 50 and older.

While these figures do not establish a causal relationship between social networking site usage and receiving contact from past connections, it is clear that more of this activity is happening among people who maintain profiles on social networking sites than among those who do not.

  1. numoffset=”8″ However, there are many activities tied to reputation monitoring happen on social networking sites and 61% of social networking users visit the sites at least every few days. It is also the case that some internet users hire services like Reputation Defender to conduct their online reputation monitoring for them.
  2. In December 2009, after this survey was fielded, Google started personalizing its search results. This would presumably now affect a user’s perception of their ranking in the search results. For more detail, see: http://searchengineland.com/google-now-personalizes-everyones-search-results-31195
  3. In 2006 we presented this finding as a percentage of all adult internet users who had a job that required self-marketing online (11% of internet users). However, due to the fluctuations in employment levels since that time, the percentage of all internet users who have this kind of job is now lower (9%) even though the employed population as a whole now includes a higher proportion of people who have such a job.
  4. numoffset=”11″ The 2009 survey was the first time we asked this question, so there is no trend data to compare change over time.
  5. See: “Predicting Social Security numbers from public data,” Alessandro Acquisti and Ralph Gross, Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences, May 5, 2009. Available at: http://www.pnas.org/content/106/27/10975.full.pdf%20html?sid=f655da07-5374-4129-afe3-a09ba3f3fe69
  6. See: “18- to 24-year-olds most at risk for ID theft, survey finds,” Allison Klein, The Washington Post, March 17, 2010. Available at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/03/16/AR2010031604209.html