by Jason Lee, Evelyn Larrubia, Sameh El Amawy and Michael Marcotte
In 1993, The New Yorker published a cartoon by Peter Steiner of two dogs at a computer that became an instant classic, tacked up on bulletin boards everywhere. The caption: “On the internet, no one knows you’re a dog.”
A recent survey of a group of 98 tech-savvy Stanford students shows that the world Steiner depicted may be behind us. Asked about how they behave—or would behave—in a variety of situations online, students painted a picture that looked surprisingly like real life.
“Talking online is like talking in public,” summarized one student in the class.
That’s a huge shift from the thinking of a generation ago, when the internet was largely seen as an anonymous frontier—a place where alter egos thrived and people could escape the constraining shackles of real-world social pressures and norms.
Why the change? Certainly, the increasing ubiquity of online social networks and their role in bringing people’s “true” identities to the internet has been instrumental. As services such as Facebook and LinkedIn bring real life social networks to the digital realm, it appears that reputation, social capital, and many of the other constructs that govern our real life behavior are coming with it. As one student readily admitted, “I am extremely conscious of my online social image.”
Indeed, in a world where anything that you put online can be tied back to your identity and seen by others—in particular those you know—you might think twice before chiming in. In fact, many students felt that these traditional social pressures were even stronger online than in real life.
“Everything online can be tracked and measured,” noted one Management Science & Engineering graduate student. “If you make unfair, disparaging remarks anywhere, this history could be attached to your persistent online identity. In some ways, you can be more anonymous offline than online.”
“For me, spoken words are taken away with air,” said another student, “but written words stay forever.”
So why not just remain anonymous? Increasingly in today’s online world, it seems that in order to be heard, one must also be seen. As one student pointed out, if you remain anonymous online, you won’t be taken seriously.
“Having the anonymity of the computer is a nice luxury, but I think my opinion won’t hold as much credibility,” she said.
Many companies have recognized the self-enforcing power of these social dynamics. Amazon.com—which has been at the vanguard of the social data revolution—long ago started publishing the real names of its customers alongside their reviews. Quora, a leading social question-and-answer service, relies even more heavily on identity and reputation to keep the quality of its users’ contributions high. And with an ever-growing number of online services leveraging Facebook Connect, the notion of a single, persistent identity that travels with you across the web is not far off. Those who choose to remain anonymous will likely be pushed increasingly to the fringes of online society.
Changing norms and expectations about privacy in the digital age have only reinforced these pressures. While online privacy was a core concern for many students, most surveyed also recognized the reality that any information they chose to share online was essentially public, as it could be relatively easily found by anyone who wanted it badly enough.
“I think there’s a general misconception that what you put on the internet won’t be found,” said one student. “What people need to realize is that no matter what you blog, upload, tweet, etc., you’re responsible for it and it should be something you would be happy to stand behind.”
Watching what you say (and share) is not the only real world phenomenon beginning to permeate the online world. If these Stanford students have anything to say about it, a fundamental shift will also be taking place in people’s purchase decision-making—toward something that looks a lot more like how people shopped before the internet came around.
It was the internet that spawned crowd-sourced reviews and enabled the wisdom of the masses to inform which products and services we should buy. New restaurant you’ve been thinking about trying? Let’s see how many stars it has on Yelp first. Less than four, you say? In that case I might only go if a Groupon comes out for it.
Prior to having this data at your fingertips, you had to rely much more on friends’ recommendations to make buying decisions. And while this fundamental change in behavior isn’t going away, the irony is that online social networks are starting to actually bring us “back to the future”: the clear consensus among the students is that the social data they will leverage in the future will be sourced less from generic public opinion, and much more from their trusted networks of friends.
As one student summarized it, purchasing decisions will be based on “information from people I trust who own the products I want to buy.”
“I will take advantage of social data by taking into account which of my peers have purchased from which retailers or brands,” said another student. “I could also post my own questions on social network sites to seek more targeted and personal responses.”
There is a clear expectation that with this social overlay will come customization in every facet of the shopping experience, drawn not just from data on an individual’s habits (as Amazon does today), but also from those closest to them.
“There will be an app that recognizes my tastes (based on my profile and behavior) and will match it with those of people who I trust (friends who have recommended things in the past and on which I acted positively),” predicted one student. “The app will know what stage of my life I am at, and will be able to predict what I have and do not have (based on my online consumption behavior and general online queries). Therefore the app will suggest the products that I will want to (and be able to) purchase, cross-referencing them with suggestions/reviews from my friends (or other people who have a similar profile to mine).”
What can a survey of a group of computer science, engineering, and business school students at the epicenter of online innovation tell you about online behavior?
It won’t tell you what a grandmother in Urumqi is doing right now. But it may very well tell you what her grandkids will be doing next year.
Jason Lee and Sameh El Amawy are currently MBA students at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Evelyn Larrubia is a national award winning investigative reporter and editor from Los Angeles who is spending a year as a Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford. Michael Marcotte is also a Knight Journalism Fellow.
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