Wednesday, April 13, 2011

What We Think Others Can See: Perceptions on Shared Information

I came across the following infographic from Pew Internet. It illustrates the information that people believe they've shared online:

Though the data was collected in 2009, it's worth considering as we are still navigating issues of reputation management and digital identity. The information suggests that people are cautious about sharing personal media files (e.g., photos, videos, and personal opinion pieces), but are willing to be linked to employers/organizations—perhaps as a means of establishing authenticity and  building reputation? The data sample are online users, so I would assume that this group is minimally aware of the importance of controlling the information connected to your Google search.

Naturally, the "Don't Know" column holds special interest, but that email addresses lead the category is not at all surprising. Email addresses are collected by virtually every online service, and increasingly many offline businesses as well. This seems to be the piece of information that may most easily slip from the user's control. I did find it interesting that even among this group the percentage of people unsure whether media images of them are available is lower than the percentage of people who are unsure whether home address and telephone numbers are available. I'm curious whether the "Don't Knows" are a subset of slightly less tech savvy users—if so, it's interesting that even they have given thought to the ways they are represented by media.


  1. "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?"

    In our society we are frequently reminded of how much information is being gathered about us, often without our consent and usually as a direct requirement of doing business - I can't even get a latte at the nearby Starbucks without the barista insisting he MUST know my first name.

    However, with this increasing awareness, there's also a significant desire to reduce, or at least take control of that footprint. It's very typical, at least in the circles in which I run, to give out special email addresses to companies - I know one tech-savvy individual who owns his own domain and makes specific addresses for each company, so when he gets spam he knows who sold his data. I'm not quite so involved - I simply have a single spam blackhole, and it gets more email than all of my other addresses combined. In addition, as with many people I know, I maintain a "private" identity which I don't use for anything commercial at all. In person I usually refuse to give identifying information (e.g., no, Microcenter does NOT need my home address to sell me a mouse) and if possible use bonus cards to which I've given false information (that Directory S. Ervices sure buys a lot of milk!)

    I think we may see a growth in such countermeasures. Companies spread a wide net... they don't get a guarantee that we won't throw garbage in it.

  2. This will be an interesting process to watch unfold as the presumably more tech-savvy generations start to be solicited in this way. The reports have been conflicting: some say that younger web users don't care about the data being shared, and yet others say that they do. There is an increased awareness about one's presence online—I'm curious to see whether this will translate into the ways we form relationships with brands/companies.

  3. Well, so far it appears that the prevailing trend has been to let companies gather the information. Even among people who are aware and even offended, the reality is that obfuscating personal information takes more effort than allowing it, and who has time to worry that Macy's is going to send you an extra flyer and email each week?
    As much as I'd like to see it go the other way, I don't think privacy advocates are gonna win this one. OTOH, I think there will always remain a non-trivial minority which keeps a certain amount of doubt in data gathering.