We are online all the time and there is no way to hide it. Every time we watch a documentary on YouTube, scroll through Tiktok, or read an article in the New York Times, we leave a trace. Digital data is harvested with every online interaction, creating individual profiles that organizations can use to refine their content in order to generate more clicks.
In 2018, professors Joanne Hinds and Adam N. Joinson from the University of Bath reviewed 327 studies about digital footprints and compiled their findings into an article called “What Demographic Attributes Do Our Digital Footprints Reveal? A Systematic Review” that details the type of information we reveal about ourselves when using the internet. The most common demographic attributes found were sex, gender, age, location, political orientation, and occupation. However, other attributes like ethnicity, race, religion, education, family, relationships, income, and sexual orientation were documented as well.
These traits reveal a lot about us on their own, but they also carry numerous implications that companies can use to tailor their content for a more engaging experience. For example, biological sex and gender can often predict what kind of language a person will use. The study noted that English-speaking women tend to use more emojis and emotion-based words, while English-speaking men tend to use dictionary-based words. Additionally, the study found that English-speaking men posted more website links than their female counterparts. The analysis of digital footprints has also revealed that language patterns are influenced by age. People under the age of thirty tend to use “words related to school, work, socialising, computer games and comedians,” whereas adults over the age of thirty tend to use “more family related words and words associated with the news or society” (Hinds & Joinson). Over the years, digital footprints have gotten more advanced, to the point where they can predict age and sex with 70-80% accuracy. They are even capable of revealing things like our language patterns and cell phone metrics.
While the increasingly widespread availability of digital footprint data is amazing from a technological standpoint, it does have both benefits and drawbacks. As consumers, it can be a bit worrying to know that every move online leaves a trace. Although it is possible to reduce your online footprint by exercising caution and minimizing the personal information you share online, every click still contributes to a growing digital profile of yourself.
On the other hand, digital footprints do have some benefits. For example, writers and speakers may enjoy the insight about their audience base. Connecting with your audience provides confirmation that your outreach is succeeding and engaging your target audience.
Digital footprints have made it possible to know what demographics tend to flock towards certain types of content and how those groups of people will react. Writers, editors, and communicators benefit from using this data, as they have also made it possible to revise one’s content before publication in order to attract demographics that might otherwise not be interested. For example, a writer who publishes an article and notices that most of the comments tend to contain dictionary-based words and have a lack of emoticons can conclude that his or her work is reaching or resonating with a mostly male audience, and thus promote the piece on sites that female users are known to frequent. Consumer data is constantly being collected in real time, so digital footprints are a great tool that writers have at their disposal. This data has allowed technical communicators to research the types of content that different demographics tend to browse the most and then alter their own work to meet the demands of their target audience.
What Demographic Attributes do Our Digital Footprints Reveal? A Systematic Review, by Joanne Hinds, Adam N. Joinson
Viewpoint Written by Jennifer Tso, University of California Davis (UC Davis)
Edited by Sherralyn Robbins, University of Maine