Where Will Our Digital Footprints Lead?

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The current run of presidential primaries, and the surprising (to some) results so far, has me thinking further ahead – not about the elections of ’08, but about the elections of say, 2024, when today’s college students will first become eligible to run for presidential office.

Specifically, how will the digital footprints left by today’s younger generation affect the leaders of all types – political, business, social – of tomorrow? How will elections and interviews for top jobs be different when everyone will have the opportunity to parse the candidate’s Facebook (or other) profiles and blog entries from their early years? Real life reputational effects of online behavior are absolutely already being felt, but the effects of the accumulation of years of online history have yet to be seen at the highest levels of leadership.

In December, the Pew Internet and American Life Project published a report about how individuals monitor and manage their online identities – our “digital footprints.” (And yes, I realize the irony in starting my place on this blog – very much a digital footprint – with a post about the same.)

One of the interesting findings of the report is that adults treat the content they choose to contribute online (to sites such as Facebook) with more transparency than teenagers. The report found that of Internet users, 20% of adults have profiles on social networking sites, compared to 55% of teenagers. (I suspect that number is now higher for both groups, as the survey was conducted in December 2006.) But of those with profiles, 60% of adults have public profiles that can be seen by anyone, while only 40% of teens do.

One excellent blogger suggests that based on these findings, adults are saying one thing and doing another – not worrying about their own privacy online while urging teens to be more careful about their online interactions. I wonder if there may be other reasons for the generational disparity.

A pedestrian reason may be that adults are less sophisticated users of social networks and less aware of the range of privacy options available to them. But a more complex reason may be that adults are more likely to post content they’re comfortable with others seeing, whereas teens may post more “private” information but limit the reach of that content. However, even private profiles and other digital information leaves a footprint, and it will be interesting to see what effects this has on the reputations of tomorrow’s leaders.

The topic of a generational difference between what people are comfortable disclosing online is one that’s come up a number of times around the Logos office. On a personal level, for example, one of my close family members has never disclosed his voting selections to me – what happens in the polling booth stays in the polling booth – whereas many of my friends are not only comfortable but also active and vocal in disclosing their political affiliations, with some listing their support for certain candidates on their Facebook profiles. But then it gets complicated, because their profiles are private and limited to their network of friends.

So maybe this is the real dichotomy – the younger generations are comfortable disclosing more, as long as they can control who sees it and what happens to that information. The crisis around Facebook’s Beacon application is just one recent example of this tension (see the discussion in our year in review here).

Where, then, do these digital footprints lead us? One path that a BusinessWeek associate editor and blogger suggests we should worry more about is what the government is doing with all of our online, personal information.

Another path yet to materialize is how we, as individuals, grapple with this information. I wonder if a time will come for something like a “personal reputation monitoring” service, in the vein of our credit monitoring services today. Will we see a paid service that monitors all presence of an individual online, and provides a monthly or breaking report based on activity – not as a government-initiated program, but as something an individual chooses to do to protect his or her online reputation?

The current options are more limited and include things like conducting a Google search on oneself (which the Pew report says that about half of all Internet users have done). And ultimately, the answer might not lie in the monitoring of such electronic information, but in the care we exercise now in providing that information in the first place.

This is a complex topic with a number of layers, many of which I’ve just barely touched on here. In the coming year, I hope to explore more of these issues on this blog, and look forward to your feedback, question and comments.

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