Today the Pew Research Centre’s Internet and American Life Project released their report Reputation Management and Social Media (2010) which is based on research undertaken late 2009. There is a great deal of important and topical information in the survey, with the US results likely to be slightly higher but certainly comparable to trends in Australia. I want to really draw attention to the way that younger adults are using social media according to this report, using three of Pew’s graphs to talk about their findings.
The first graph indicates how many internet users search for their own name online:
This result is particularly interesting for two reasons: firstly, it shows that across the board, interest in our own web presences has increased dramatically across the last decade; and secondly, it highlights that younger adults (those 18-29) appear to be the most concerned with their online reputation. As danah boyd celebrated earlier today, this result really undermines the cultural myth that younger people are the least interested with online privacy. Obviously this survey excludes people under-18, but it’s fair to assume that part of the process of growing up these days includes becoming sensitised to the importance of being aware of our web presence.
Similarly, the Pew report also highlights the face that younger people are the most active in controlling their presence online, insomuch as they are most likely to have changed their privacy settings on social networks, they are the most likely to untag a photo of themselves, and so forth:
Here we see that younger people are also the most conscious of shaping their web presence, by editing who can see what they share online, and which elements of the digital artefacts linked to them remain visible, and remain linked to their names.
The last Pew graph shows how much information people are seeking about others online:
Everything from contact details to photos are being sought online, which similarly highlights how important it is that everyone be aware of what their web presence really ‘says’ about them.
Since I teach in the Internet Studies department here at Curtin, it’s hardly a surprise that all of this information is vital to consider when we design the learning experiences our students encounter. In the first-year unit Web Communications 101, the notion of web presence is our central organising theme. However, one of the distinctions we make, which Pew does not, is the difference between digital traces we leave purposefully, and maintain control over, versus those we don’t. In Web Comms 101, as Pew does, we talk about footprints, but we also talk about digital shadows, those bits of digital media that are somehow attached to our names, or chosen identities, which we have minimal, if any, control over. Given how much people search for each other, and how much thought is going into how we appear online for the average internet user, it’s probably how we address and deal with those shadows which will be one of the most important topics to seriously consider in the coming years.