The Pew Internet and American Life Project’s “Digital Footprints” report looks at it from both ways – how we use search engines and others tools to track our own online presence but also that of friends and colleagues. According to the report, for example, nearly 50 per cent of Internet users have searched for their own name online (though not with any regularity) and 53 per cent of Internet users have searched online for information about personal and business contacts. This, however, is not the big deal. The big deal is when we shift from scouring for digital footprints on the public Web and instead track the paths we’ve taken through enterprise IT systems.
Until recently, most of us left our mark on enterprise IT by the word processing documents and spreadsheets we created and then stored in a folder on a shared drive somewhere. If an IT manager wanted to, they could also (usually at the request of a senior executive) go back through e-mail records, something that is still done as part of various e-discovery requests. As enterprise search technology matures and social networking becomes an enterprise staple, however, we’ll be leaving digital footprints in a lot more places at work. And because of that, we may want to watch where we step.
It is becoming easier, for example, to go through an entire project with a team of coworkers completely through electronic collaboration. Besides e-mail there could be instant messaging, wiki discussion boards, videoconferences and even blog entries. While the shelf life for such communication usually isn’t that long, companies may choose to archive them indefinitely so as to go over what went wrong after a project’s conclusion, and more specifically whose actions led to a bad outcome. Even if a company were not looking at the actions of a single individual, there could be the potential for workflow analysis that could change a business process. This is why many call centre interactions are logged, for example. We haven’t gotten used to the idea of this happening in other forms of technology-based communication, but with the evolution of VoIP, file-sharing and advanced collaboration tools, we should be.
The Pew Institute was focusing on a common concern for those of us spending more of our personal time online – how is our Web identity being discussed, co-opted and in some cases invaded for the gain of others? Work-based digital footprints will be studied more to determine accountability (and even culpability). In a more positive light, digital footprints could also be used as a way of evaluating performance. If the work of an enterprise is truly enabled by the strength of its IT, then the most successful employees of that firm should also be leaving the biggest digital footprints. They will be tied into the systems that enhance their relationships with coworkers, partners and especially customers. A very real issue we may one day face is whether it’s fair to judge someone’s work by their digital footprints – whether the offline contributions are getting short shrift compared to that which can be recorded and assessed.
Of course, the world of work and play are no longer islands, and some of the tools that are common in one are being used to reach out to those in the other. That’s where the tracking, measurement and analysis will get really interesting. You never really know where you’ll leave your digital footprints next.