May 26, 2010

Reputation Management and Social Media

Part 4: Implications

Americans are increasingly aware that online reputation matters, but the full scope of its influence is difficult to assess.

While more Americans are keeping tabs on their online reputations through search and social media, it is nearly impossible to measure the full range of influence that information has on their everyday interactions. Very few internet users report bad experiences due to embarrassing or inaccurate information appearing online, but there are undoubtedly others who have been affected without realizing it. On websites such as Openbook (www.youropenbook.org) examples abound of social media users—both young and old—sharing information that they presumably do not realize is publicly accessible.

By the same token, there are many positive effects associated with a certain level of visibility online. Growing numbers of internet users are leveraging the social power of the internet to reconnect with friends from the past and far-flung family members with whom they have lost touch. Employees are building professional reputations online and collaborating with colleagues through social media sites. Those who are seeking romantic partners use online tools to learn more about their prospective dates. Each of these phenomena is facilitated by some amount of information disclosure, and users are increasingly forced to anticipate all of these potential audiences when making decisions about the information they share in public and semi-public spaces online.

Young adults more actively restrict access to the information they share, but the efficacy of these limitations is unknown.

Young adults, perhaps out of necessity, are much more active curators of their online identities when compared with older adults. When they change privacy settings, delete tags and comments, and request that information about them be removed, they are demonstrating a desire to exert control over the content they share and the tide of information that others post about them online. However, certain privacy controls on social media sites have become increasingly difficult to navigate. These changes, instituted after the data for this report was gathered, raise questions about the efficacy of users’ current efforts to restrict access to the information posted to their profiles.

It is also the case that younger adults report a wider array of information being available about them online when compared with older adults. In that sense, they have more to manage and more to limit. Older adults may self-censor by simply choosing not to disclose certain information or engage with certain online tools. However, the information we voluntarily share about ourselves online is only one element of our digital footprint; the details that others share about us are much less predictable and arguably require even greater vigilance to manage.  

Reputation management is a moving target with many factors outside of a user’s control.

When search engines alter the way they deliver search results and social media sites make successive revisions to privacy settings and policies, even the most attentive reputation managers may find it difficult to keep up with all of the changes. The fact that Americans overwhelmingly feel as though it is not fair to judge people based on the information you find about them online may be a response to these uncertain conditions.