Americans’ Attitudes on Digital Footprints (Pew Internet & American Life Project)

I wanted to get more information about “online culture” within the US, since it is still, at least for now, the standard for what an online society looks like in terms of debating privacy versus openness, online presence, and reputation.

In December 2007, the Pew Internet & American Life Project released the findings from its surveys on “digital footprints” and “online identity management and search in the age of transparency”.  You can read the full report (PDF) online, and the questionnaire they used, as well.

It is interesting to study the attitudes versus the actions of social networking users when it comes to privacy versus openness.  The study found that “[m]ost internet users are not concerned about the amount of information available about them online, and most do not take steps to limit that information.”

With adults defined as those aged 18+ and teens from 12-17,

“The Pew Internet Project has reported extensively on teenagers’ use of social networking websites, finding that 55% of online teens have created an online profile and that most restrict access to them in some way.25 Looking at adults, creation of social networking profiles is much lower (just 20%), but those who do maintain profiles appear to do so in a much more transparent way.”
“Looking at all adult internet users who maintain an online profile, 82% say that their profile is currently visible compared with 77% of online teens who report this. Among adults who say they have a visible profile, 60% say that profile can be seen by anyone who happens upon it, while 38% say their profile is only accessible to friends. However, teens with visible profiles appear to make more conservative choices with respect to visibility, just 40% said their profile was visible to anyone, while 59% restricted their profile to friends only.”

So there are fewer adults actively engaged online, but they are far more transparent and open about their activities.  Teens, growing up in the information generation, take more control of their content.  Is this because teens have been taught to protect their information, or because of social norms within their peers?

The findings differentiate between different types of online users.  It calls them “Concerned and Careful”, “Worried by the Wayside”, “Confident Creatives”, and “Unfazed and Inactive”.  You’ll have to read the full report for the distinctions between the groups but what’s interesting about the groups is that the overall trend is towards greater transparency and sharing of one’s personal details online, for better or for worse.

There are the confident creatives who are the youngest group, posting plenty of online content to blogs, photo-sharing, etc. without as much concern about privacy.  There are the concerned and careful, and worried by the wayside, who know that they have already lost control of a lot of personal information online but do not contribute much online content on their own.  And there are the unfazed and inactive who just aren’t aware of what’s going on online at all.

“Privacy” as we have preferred to know it is disappearing.  Our ability to protect our information from any exterior database is almost non-existent except for the most vigilant.  David Brin, author of “The Transparent Society”, basically assumes that we need to accept that privacy is a losing game for individuals and that we may be able to counter corporate and government interests against us if we collaborate and use full transparency in our lives to watch each other as well as the watchmen themselves.  Privacy advocates say we need to shore up how data is shared from organization to organization by way of projects like OAuth.

Somewhere in the middle is where the future will lie.  As the report says,

Ultimately, many big “time will tell” questions remain about the nature of our persistent presence online. Will we come to be more forgiving of embarrassing or unflattering information trails as more of us have our own experiences with personal data leftovers gone bad? Will we become less trusting of information found about people online unless it is vetted in some way?

Instead of thinking about privacy, we’ll demand that we have control of our content.  Facebook is the typical example used to describe this; now you are able to control the inflows and outflows of content on Facebook.  The problem is that most people either don’t take the time or don’t care about fixing these settings.  Where is a happy medium?

Maybe users could sign up and categorize themselves based on the groups listed above (i.e. Confident Creative) to establish a baseline expectation of privacy.

The US is driving online networking at the moment, creating most of the future tools.  This may change, and already social networking usage is booming worldwide, but it is worth starting my research into privacy versus openness with studies based on Americans’ perceptions of their digital footprints online.