Now more than ever, Americans are enjoying instant and easy access to a wide range of online services and activities. From shopping and banking to entertainment and social media, we rely on the Internet for almost every facet of our lives. Demand for these services as well as the desire for a personalized online experience have led consumers to regularly offer up personal information to companies and online providers. At the same time, Americans are beginning to voice concerns over the collection of their personal information and how it’s used. In this ever-advancing digital information age, how will Americans resolve their desires for both privacy and online conveniences?
To Share or Not to Share?
It’s a fact – Americans love to share information in many capacities from vacation photos and restaurant reviews to news stories and blog posts. Nearly two-thirds of all Americans use social networking sites, including 90% of young adults aged 18 to 29. Twitter has over 500 million tweets sent per day, while people share over 30 billion pieces of content on Facebook each month, including web links, news stories, posts, notes, and photos. The popular photo-sharing social network Instagram witnesses over 70 million photo shares per day.
Online users share and consume so much personal information and content that researchers have coined the term “digital crowding” to describe today’s nonstop social contact and lack of personal space. Some users take occasional “social media vacations” to detox from their digital world.
So why do people share so much? According to a New York Times study that aimed to understand the psychology of social sharing, people share for a variety of reasons. The study found that people share to bring valuable and entertaining content to others, to help define ourselves, to grow and develop relationships to get the word out about causes or brands, and to feel more involved in the world. In addition to social sharing, a Pew Research study found that people are also willing to share information with companies and organizations in exchange for receiving tangible benefits or something of perceived value, gaining useful services or information, and facilitating commercial interactions.
Businesses also understand the value of the information that customers choose to share with them. Customer data can be used to create customized promotions and offers and provide better customer service. Companies can also use customer data as feedback in creating new products or improving existing ones.
While there are plenty of advantages to sharing information for a more robust, interactive, and personalized online experience, there are glaring downsides. Internet security and online reputation management experts warn that oversharing sensitive or inappropriate information on social media or other sites can do serious damage to one’s social well-being, relationships, and personal reputation. Oversharing on social media could also impact your ability to land that dream job. A CareerBuilder survey found that a quarter of hiring managers that use social media to screen applicants found content that made them not hire a candidate.
While people don’t need much convincing to give up personal information such as addresses, credit card numbers, or social security numbers, the concern over what happens to that information once it’s collected is ever present.
Public outrage over personal information hacks and security breaches, such as those that occurred at Target in 2013, Home Depot in 2014, and the Internal Revenue Service in 2015, have led to increased awareness of the fallibility of merchant and government data systems and the need to prevent cyber attacks and fraud. For Target’s in particular, over 70 million customers’ credit card information was stolen by hackers. Although Target offered free credit monitoring for one year to customers who were affected, trust in the mass merchant was tarnished, resulting in decreased customer visits and sales for months after the hack.
In addition, while most people are comfortable providing information when they know why they are providing the info, many are suspicious that data collectors may either use customer’s information for other purposes or sell their information to third parties resulting in wider dissemination of sensitive information and unwanted spam. As a result, privacy settings, especially on social media websites, have been getting a lot more attention while major browsers now offer “do not track” features. Businesses are also using software and other tools to better encrypt and protect customer data from hackers.
The Future of Online Sharing
Despite current concerns that Americans willingly share too much personal or sensitive information online, many experts believe sharing norms and attitudes toward privacy will change in the next 10 to 25 years. According to a Pew Research study, opinions that policy makers and technology firms would work to create a secure and widely accepted online privacy-rights infrastructure for individuals and businesses by 2025 were split (55% of respondents said “no” while 45% said “yes”). However, most survey respondents acknowledged that with the continuing evolution of the digital era, people will increasingly be more receptive to trading information and privacy for convenience and customization. According to one Pew Research survey respondent, “If anything, consumer tracking will increase, and almost all data entered online will be considered ‘fair game’ for purposes of analytics and producing user-driven ads.”
Others anticipate there will be a greater balance of privacy and information sharing. Businesses and online services will likely continue to offer increasingly customized offerings, while at the same time providing alternative options, such as tiered payment plans that block advertisements, to customers with privacy concerns. Although the definition of “online privacy” will likely continue to be redefined in an increasingly information-driven age, consumer advocate groups and businesses can work together towards developing stronger data protections and information safeguards in the future.