Busting Online Reputation Management Myths

Pew Internet’s latest research study Reputation Management and Social Media has just come out, with perhaps surprising results.

The (really awesome) FlowTown Blog has a great infographic of the study results (right-click in a new tab to see it larger):

That second quote in the middle is where the surprise comes in.  From the Pew summary:

When compared with older users, young adults are more likely to restrict what they share and whom they share it with. “Contrary to the popular perception that younger users embrace a laissez-faire attitude about their online reputations, young adults are often more vigilant than older adults when it comes to managing their online identities,†said Madden [Mary Madden, author of the study].


Young adults more actively restrict access to the information they share, but the efficacy of these limitations is unknown.

Young adults, perhaps out of necessity, are much more active curators of their online identities when compared with older adults. When they change privacy settings, delete tags and comments, and request that information about them be removed, they are demonstrating a desire to exert control over the content they share and the tide of information that others post about them online. However, certain privacy controls on social media sites have become increasingly difficult to navigate. These changes, instituted after the data for this report was gathered, raise questions about the efficacy of users’ current efforts to restrict access to the information posted to their profiles.

It is also the case that younger adults report a wider array of information being available about them online when compared with older adults. In that sense, they have more to manage and more to limit. Older adults may self-censor by simply choosing not to disclose certain information or engage with certain online tools. However, the information we voluntarily share about ourselves online is only one element of our digital footprint; the details that others share about us are much less predictable and arguably require even greater vigilance to manage.

The whole study is really fascinating.  danah boyd also has a good analysis of that particular aspect of the findings:

Young adults are actively engaged in managing their reputation but they’re not always successful. The tools are confusing and companies continue to expose them without them understanding what’s happening. But the fact that they go out of their way to try to shape their information is important. It signals very clearly that young adults care deeply about information flow and reputation.

Here are some direct links to the report sections.  I recommend you read (or at least skim through) – the writing is clear and concise, an easy read (at least for those of you like me whose eyes glaze over when you start reading survey results). ;)

Part 1: Managing the ever-expanding reach of our digital footprints
Searching for ourselves online
What we think others can see about us online

Part 2: Concerns about the availability of personal information
Attitudes and actions
Negative experiences and damage control
Managing identity through social media

Part 3: Searching, Following and Friending: How users monitor other people’s digital footprints online
Searching for others
What we search for

Part 4: Implications

Reading through this stuff gives me a weird sense of deja-vu – because it validates a lot of the stuff I feel that we instinctively know and talk about frequently.  And we know it’s not enough just to talk stats in a vacuum.  For example, in this presentation on Truth and Authenticity in the Digital Age that Jamie and I gave recently, we touched on similar statistics by showing the Socialnomics video, but it was more useful (we thought) to get to the heart of the matter by  approaching the topic of online identity and reputation more directly by getting the audience to do an ego search and see for themselves what was out there about them.

The other piece of this, for me, is that it sharply illustrates that we as a society seem to enjoy clinging to cliched, pessimistic, fear-based, glass half-empty ideas about the state of the digital age and our role in it – not just the myth that young people don’t care about their online reputation, but also the similarly stupid myth that people over 45 (or whatever age) don’t get the social internet.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that excuse for not getting started.   At this point, it’s not an age issue, it’s a lack of curiosity issue.

So I’m calling bullshit on all that – and this kind of research (and this kind of data) will help me do just that.  The key is for all of YOU to do what you do so well, to keep sharing good stuff like this and keep on top of it and keep looking at the big picture.  Not just gathering data for data’s sake, but being aware of trends – which are evolving faster all the time – and making your insights actionable.

{ 1 comment }

Barry Hurd May 31, 2010 at 2:57 pm

While the report has some really interesting pieces to it, I don’t think the point about younger users restricting information at a higher rate is actually valid for one brutal reason: young users probably use ALL FEATURES more than older users.

As you increase the age of any web user, it isn’t too hard to realize that casual usage of the “settings tab” on most services becomes less understood. I would be very interested to see this same survey done again with some basic educational questions thrown into it.

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