More than twice as many Internet users today are plugging their own names into a search engine to find out what kind of personal information is available on the Web than just five years ago, according to new research from the Pew Internet Project.
The study, titled “Digital Footprints: Online Identity Management and Search in the Age of Transparency,” found that while people are increasingly aware of the trail of information they leave on the Web, the majority of Internet users are not worried about that information and most do not take steps to limit it.
The “age of transparency” refers to the rise of self-authored content on the participatory Web, where the level of personally identifying information goes much deeper than just a name, address, phone number and e-mail address.
The Pew researchers have pointed out that the proliferation of social networks, blogging and photo and video sharing has created an online landscape where people can not only be found through simple search, but enough of their identities are readily available online that they become “knowable.”
In the Pew study, 47 percent of participants said that they have looked for information about themselves on the Web by typing their name into a search engine, compared with the 22 percent who reported self-searching in 2002.
Only 3 percent reported that they routinely search for themselves, and 22 percent said that they self-search “every once in a while.”
Even if more people are curious about their increasingly detailed online profiles, most are still unfazed by the results.
The Pew study found that 60 percent of Internet users are unconcerned about how much information is available; a corresponding 61 percent do not feel the need to limit information.
On the social networks, teenagers are more privacy-conscious with their profiles than adults, the Pew researchers found. Among the adults with visible profiles, 60 percent said that they can be viewed by anyone, while 38 percent said that their profile is only visible to friends. Among teenagers with visible profiles, the numbers are reversed: 40 percent said that anyone can view their profiles; 59 percent limit access to friends only.
The study also identified some discrepancy between the information people expected to find about themselves and what actually turned up on a basic Web search.
When self-searching by name, 38 percent of Internet users did not find any information about themselves. Thirteen percent were surprised by how little information there is about them on the Web, while 21 percent were surprised by how much is out there.
The majority – 62 percent – said that the information about them on the Web met their expectations.
The Pew researchers also found that the accuracy of the information retrieved by self-searching has improved considerably in the last five years. In the 2002 study, 74 percent of the participants said that the bulk of the information available about them was generally accurate; in this year’s study, 87 percent said the information was accurate.
Roughly 10 percent of Internet users have a job that requires them to maintain an active Web presence, either for marketing or general informational purposes. Unsurprisingly, members of that segment are far more likely to conduct self searches.
For some time, job seekers, particularly recent college graduates taking their first steps into the professional world, have been warned to pay close attention to the personal information they load their profiles with on MySpace or Facebook. Hiring managers have been known to mine the social networks in search of primary source material about job seekers, which frequently surfaces as an embarrassing counterpoint to the self-adulatory froth of résumés and CV’s.
Pew’s study offers some numbers to pin down the confluence of work-life and the social Web. Twenty percent of the respondents said that their employers have a policy governing how they can present themselves online.
Employees with higher levels of education are more likely to maintain an Internet presence for professional purposes, the study found. Whereas 18 percent of employed college graduates are expected to use the Web for job-related self-promotion, just 5 percent of working adults with only a high school diploma are expected to do the same.
Beyond self-search, the study also examined how Internet users are searching for other people. More than half (53 percent) of adult Internet users said that they had used a search engine to look for information about other people in their lives, be they family and friends, co-workers, competitors or romantic interests.
The rich, new dimensions of online identity notwithstanding, most Internet users who conduct people searches are only looking for contact information, like an address or phone number, according to the researchers.