Digital Footprints: Forty-seven Percent of Internet Users Have Searched for Their Own Name Online

Contact: Cindy Jobbins, 215.575.4812, Vidya Krishnamurthy, 202.419.4300


Washington, DC - 12/16/2007 - Forty-seven percent of Internet users have searched for their own name online, but few monitor their online presence with great regularity. Fifty-three percent of Internet users have searched online for information about personal and business contacts.

These findings represent a significant change from when the Pew Internet & American Life Project first reported on this activity in 2002, at which time 22% of Internet users had searched online for their own name.

More powerful search engines have made it easier to find a match for a personal name search and the "participatory Web" has made it more interesting. The explosion of blogs, YouTube, Flickr, and online profiles have increased the size of people's digital footprints, but few adult Internet users have made digital identity management a routine part of their online lives. Indeed, just looking at those who use social networking sites, a higher percentage of teens than adults are restricting access to their profiles.

"The cumulative traces of our online activity are more visible in the age of Web 2.0," says Mary Madden, a co-author of the report. "The more content we voluntarily contribute to the public or semi-public corners of the Web, the more we become not only findable, but knowable."

These are among the findings of the Pew Internet & American Life Project’s latest report on the Internet’s impact on society, "Digital Footprints: Online identity management and search in the age of transparency." The report is based on a December 2006 national telephone survey of 2,373 adults, of whom 1,623 are Internet users. The margin of error for the portion of the survey dealing with Internet users is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Most Internet users are unconcerned about the extent of the data available about them online:

  • 60% of Internet users say they are not worried about how much information is available about them online.
  • 38% of Internet users say they have taken steps to limit the amount of online information that is available about them.
But it could be that they are simply unaware:

  • Roughly one third of Internet users say the following pieces of information are available online: their email address, home address, home phone number or their employer.
  • One quarter of Internet users say a photo, names of groups they belong to, or things they have written that have their name on it appear online.
  • Few Internet users say their political affiliation, cell phone number, or video appear online.
In interviews with the Pew Internet Project, privacy advocates and professional researchers argued that many of these data points are indeed available about most people, either on the open Web or in select online databases.

When asked about eight different groups of people one might search for online—ranging from family and friends to romantic interests and business colleagues—53% of adult Internet users said they had looked for information connected to at least one of these groups.

These searches for others are often focused on basic contact information, but can be wide-ranging:

  • 72% of people searchers have sought contact information online.
  • 37% of people searchers look to the Web for information about someone’s professional accomplishments or interests.
  • 33% of people searchers have sought out someone’s profile on a social and professional networking site.
  • 31% have searched for someone’s photo.
  • 31% have searched for someone else’s public records, such as real estate transactions, divorce proceedings, bankruptcies, or other legal actions.
  • 28% have searched for someone’s personal background information.
"Nostalgia seems to motivate quite a few Internet users. The most popular search target is someone from the past – an old friend, an old flame, or a former colleague," said Susannah Fox, a co-author of the report. "These findings provide powerful evidence of the Internet's capacity to reunite and reignite social connections. One-third of Internet users say they have searched for information about someone with whom they have lost touch. And one in five Internet users say someone has reached out to reconnect with them after finding their contact information online."

View full report Digital Footprints Online Identity Management and Search in the Age of Transparency.

About the Pew Internet & American Life Project

The Pew Internet Project produces reports that explore the social impact of the Internet. Support for the non-profit Pew Internet Project is provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts. The Project is an initiative of the Pew Research Center.

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