Pew: Young Adults Excel at Online ‘Reputation Management’

WASHINGTON, D.C.—The fine folk at Pew Research have conducted a study on how people manage their own online identities and the extent to which they monitor the online “footprint” of others. Not surprisingly, younger adult aged 18-29 are far more practiced at and attentive to “reputation management,” as it is now called, than older internet users, not only with respect to how much personal information they allow online, but also the frequency with which they search online for information about friends past and present.

In general, Pew indicated a few major trends that pointed to a marked growth in activities related to reputation management:

* Online reputation-monitoring via search engines has increased—57 percent of adult internet users now use search engines to find information about themselves online, up from 47 percent in 2006.

* Activities tied to maintaining an online identity have grown as people post information on profiles and other virtual spaces—46 percent of online adults have created their own profile on a social networking site, up from just 20 percent in 2006.

* Monitoring the digital footprints of others has also become much more common—46 percent of internet users search online to find information about people from their past, up from 36 percent in 2006. Likewise, 38 percent have sought information about their friends, up from 26 percent in 2006.

The rise in “reputation monitoring” has been met with a commensurate rise in reputation management, with young adults showing a far greater vigilance protecting their privacy than older adult, and far less trust that online entities will do it for them.

“Compared with older users, young adults are not only the most attentive to customizing their privacy settings and limiting what they share via their profiles, but they are also generally less trusting of the sites that host their content,” wrote Mary Madden and Aaron Smith for Pew. “When asked how much of the time they think they can trust social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn, 28 percent of SNS users ages 18-29 say ‘never.’ By comparison, a smaller segment of older users express such cautious views; 19 percent of SNS users ages 30-49 and 14 percent of those ages 50-64 say they never trust these sites.”

That lack of trust has led young adult to be far more hands-on when it comes to managing their online identities, with those ages 18-29 said they were more likely than older adults to:

* Take steps to limit the amount of personal information available about them online—44 percent of young adult internet users say this, compared with 33 percent of internet users between ages 30-49, 25 percent of those ages 50-64 and 20 percent of those age 65 and older.

* Change privacy settings—71 percent of social networking users ages 18-29 have changed the privacy settings on their profile to limit what they share with others online. By comparison, just 55 percent of SNS users ages 50-64 have changed the default settings.

* Delete unwanted comments—47 percent social networking users ages 18-29 have deleted comments that others have made on their profile, compared with just 29 percent of those ages 30-49 and 26 percent of those ages 50-64.

* Remove their name from photos—41 percent of social networking users ages 18-29 say they have removed their name from photos that were tagged to identify them, compared with just 24 percent of SNS users ages 30-49 and only 18 percent of those ages 50-64.

The management of one’s reputation is not just a personal matter anymore, of course. Many employers search online for information about prospective employees, and the study found that 31 percent of employed internet users search online for information about co-workers, professional colleagues or competitors. A healthy percentage of employed respondents also said they were required to promote themselves online as a part of their job.

An equal or greater number of all online users said that sharing a certain amount of information about themselves online had clear benefits, including a full 48 percent who said that that getting to know new people now is easier and more meaningful because you can learn things online about the people you meet.

 “Over time,” the study found, “internet users have actually become less concerned about the amount of information available about them online—just 33 percent of internet users say they worry about how much information is available about them online, down from 40 percent in December 2006.”

Considering the lack of trust among younger adults regarding social network sites respect for their privacy, one might assume they would be more worried than others about how much information about them is online. According to the study, however, 38 percent of those aged 30-49 were worried about such stuff, while only 30 percent of those aged 18-29 had such concerns.

Overall, there was a marked decline between 2006 and 2009 in the percentage of people worried about personal information online, but the authors of the study note an important caveat to those numbers.

“Most of this decrease is attributable to those who have never used a search engine to check up on their digital footprints,” they wrote. “Those who do monitor their search results are more likely than non-searchers to express concern (37 percent vs. 27 percent).

The full report can be found here.