Background information and a note about methodology

Managing an online identity has become a multimedia affair. Not only can internet searchers type in queries about someone who has aroused their curiosity, they also can seek pictures, videos, and real-time status updates online. Location-based awareness in mobile devices adds another layer of information that can be searched.  Avid users of mobile devices may voluntarily reveal their identity and location to certain websites, thereby allowing almost anyone to learn their whereabouts. Surveillance, even the most benign kind, has moved out of the realm of private investigators and into the hands of the general public.

Much has changed since our 2007 Digital Footprints report. At the time, the idea of the then-new facial recognition technology being touted by photo search services like Polar Rose seemed radical. Today, facial recognition technology is standard in many new digital cameras, and applications like Polar Rose are soon going to be fused with the cameras and internet connections on users’ phones. Google Goggles, a service that lets you use pictures taken with your mobile device to search the Web, doesn’t offer facial recognition for now, but the underlying capability is there.1 As with any major technological advance, there are great potential benefits and risks associated with how these tools ultimately get used. See someone at a conference that you recognize but can’t remember his name? Aim your camera at him and instantly pull up the search results connected with his image online. Having a drink at a bar? Would you mind if another patron who took a liking to you could snap a picture and look you up? Planning on attending a political protest? Would you reconsider if you knew you could instantly be identified by the counter-protesters?

Even those who choose to be relatively conservative with the information they share on the internet—favoring usernames in lieu of real names when posting comments or creating an online profile—are becoming easier and easier to identify. According to one prominent study from the field of re-identification research, the vast majority of Americans (87%) can be identified with only three pieces of information: gender, zip code and date of birth.2 Given that this information is easily gleaned from many online profiles created for popular sites like Facebook, users may be more exposed than they realize. Other new studies have shown that seemingly anonymous profiles that express unique preferences—such as movie lists on Netflix—can be used to identify users.

Recent changes in the default settings associated with Facebook and the launch of Google Buzz have prompted a heated public discussion about whether or not the public cares about “privacy” at all.3 But as prominent legal scholars and social media experts have repeatedly argued, a user’s sensitivity to specific privacy concerns is highly dependent on context and is often oversimplified.4 For instance, a user of a social networking site may not care if friends and family know that she is a fan of a certain political candidate on Facebook, but she may prefer not to broadcast those preferences to her employer or neighbors.

One of the interesting tensions inherent in the realm of online reputation management is that users want to have a sense of control over their information, but they sometimes take the path of least resistance when making choices about how they manage their profiles and other content connected to their name online. Whether that means accepting the default privacy settings of an application or skipping over the fine print in a “terms of service” agreement, decisions about how one’s identity is communicated to the world can be made in haste and under the assumption that everyone experiences some level of “privacy through obscurity.”

Popular media coverage of young adults and technology use has often suggested that younger generations have little regard for practicing discretion when sharing information online.5 However, the findings in this report suggest that, when compared with older users, young adults are more active online reputation managers in several dimensions. When compared with older users, they more often customize what they share and limit whom they share it with. Other recent research has also disputed the notion that young adults and even teenagers simply “don’t care” about privacy.6

Personal information has become a form of currency that is shared and exchanged in the social marketplace today. Yet, while the management of users’ online identities has arguably become more complex and multi-faceted over time, internet users have become less likely to worry about the amount of information available about them online.

However, it is important to note that the results from this survey do not indicate that internet users care any less about retaining control over their personal information online. Many people simply are not aware of what is actually available about them; the overall drop in those who say they worry is primarily among those who have never used a search engine to look up their own names online. Likewise, a general lack of concern about the amount of information connected to one’s name online does not preclude a user from having a wide range of specific concerns about how that information might be used—whether those worries relate to the security of financial information, advertisers’ access to personal information shared on a social networking site, or government surveillance of online activities. For example, recent research has suggested that the majority of American adults do not want internet marketers to tailor advertising to their interests—particularly when that involves online data collection and monitoring.7

While online advertising plays an increasingly influential role in the way that internet users’ information is gathered, stored and sold, this survey did not address specific concerns about data collection by marketers. Instead, this report examines the everyday choices that internet users make about communicating their identity to the world and the ways in which they consume the information that others share about themselves.  At the heart of the social media explosion are millions of individual users, each contributing their share of content, and each with a reputation at stake.

Methodology Note

This report is based on the findings of a daily tracking survey on Americans’ use of the internet. The results in this report are based on data from telephone interviews conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International between August 18 to September 14, 2009, among a total sample of 2,253 adults, age 18 and older including 560 cell phone interviews. Interviews were conducted in both English (n=2,179) and Spanish (n=74) and all interviews were conducted via telephone.  For results based on the total sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the error attributable to sampling and other random effects is plus or minus 2.3 percentage points.  For results based on internet users (n=1,698), the margin of sampling error is plus or minus 2.7 percentage points.  In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting telephone surveys may introduce some error or bias into the findings of opinion polls.

A combination of landline and cellular random digit dial (RDD) samples was used to represent all adults in the continental United States who have access to either a landline or cellular telephone. Both samples were provided by Survey Sampling International, LLC (SSI) according to PSRAI specifications.  A more detailed discussion of the sampling methods used for this survey is provided in the last section of this report.