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Digital literacy and managing reputations

May 27th, 2010 by Graham Attwell

Danah Boyd writes a well timed blog post reporting on the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project who have released a report entitled “Reputation, Management, and Social Media” . The blog appeared on the same day that Facebook announced its latest tweaking on their privacy settings, a move already denounced as inadequate by privacy campaigners. The UK group Privacy International said “the latest changes merely correct some of the most unacceptable privacy settings on the site. Very little has changed in terms of the overall privacy challenge that Facebook and its users need to navigate.”

The Pew Internet survey found that young adults are more actively engaged in managing what they share online than older adults. 71% of the 18-29s interviewed in August-September of 2009 who use social network sites reported having changed their privacy settings (vs. 55% of those 50-64).

Danah Boyd comments:

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……

Much of this is because of digital literacy – the younger folks understand the controls better than the older folks AND they understand the implications better. …. This is also because, as always, youth are learning the hard way. As Pew notes, young adults have made mistakes that they regret. They’ve also seen their friends make mistakes that they regret. All of this leads to greater consciousness about these issues and a deeper level of engagement.

From my own experience young people do care. And they spend considerable time managing their Facebook accounts – tweaking settings, editing and deleting comments and especially editing tags to photos of themselves. However, this is not so much because they are concerned with their long term reputation and the repercussions of access by potential future education institutions or employers. It is because their digital image is part of their everyday image of themselves as they present it to others – and in that way part of the process of growing up. Identities are dynamic and always changing. Identities also face both ways – outwards and inwards. Young people often suffer considerable angst over their digital image. And it is little point saying that they can choose to delete their accounts or that they shouldn’t complain about a free service. Facebook, for better or worse, is a central focus of present youth culture. To opt out is to opt out of that culture.

Danah Boyd summarises key messages from the Pew Internet report:

  • Young adults are still more likely than older users to say they limit the amount of information available about them online.
  • Those who know more, worry more. And those who express concern are twice as likely to say they take steps to limit the amount of information available about them online.
  • The most visible and engaged internet users are also most active in limiting the information connected to their names online.
  • The more you see footprints left by others, the more likely you are to limit your own.
  • Those who take steps to limit the information about them online are less likely to post comments online using their real name.
  • More than half of social networking users (56%) have “unfriended” others in their network.
  • Just because we’re friends doesn’t mean I’m listening: 41% of social networking users say they filter updates posted by some of their friends.
  • Young adult users of social networking sites report the lowest levels of trust in them.
  • Young adults are still more likely than older users to say they limit the amount of information available about them online.
  • Those who know more, worry more. And those who express concern are twice as likely to say they take steps to limit the amount of information available about them online.
  • The most visible and engaged internet users are also most active in limiting the information connected to their names online.
  • The more you see footprints left by others, the more likely you are to limit your own.
  • Those who take steps to limit the information about them online are less likely to post comments online using their real name.
  • More than half of social networking users (56%) have “unfriended” others in their network.
  • Just because we’re friends doesn’t mean I’m listening: 41% of social networking users say they filter updates posted by some of their friends.
  • Young adult users of social networking sites report the lowest levels of trust in them.

The issue is no longer one of digital literacy awareness. Young people are aware. Their frustration is that Facebook does not listen to their concerns.

One Response to “Digital literacy and managing reputations”

  1. Pat Parslow says:

    One thing I would note about the Pew report is that it reports on what users say they are aware of, or what they do. I have found in interviewing HE students (so, young adults) that their perception of the steps they take and of their awareness of issues are not always in step with a more objective view.
    However, it does seem to be generally true that those growing up with the technologies are more inclined to experiment with them (in some cases) and as you say, their Digital Identity is just part of their offline identity – something which develops over time. Facebook, of course, says that it listens to its users. I suspect it does to some degree – although most people I have talked to about FBs privacy settings prefer fine grained controls, I am prepared to believe FB when they say users asked for simpler (i.e. less detailed) controls. I am rather glad that they have left the fine grained controls in for those who want to use them.
    Several of the best informed young adults I have interviewed have locked down profiles completely. I am not at all sure that this is a good response – especially not for those in creative or computer science fields. Employers increasingly, it seems, expect to be able to find your profile, and some people are a little suspicious if all they can turn up is either a locked down profile, or one which is overly sanitised. Of course, this may not always be the way – it is quite possible that there will be a societal backlash against openness which might result in those of us with relatively open DIs in an awkward position.

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