Demography in the Information Age

Do you know what your digital footprints are telling us about the online world? How can we measure human population over the Web?

Demography may be the answer.

 During the ‘Information Age’ Demography is a fundamental basis for understanding the new dynamics and reflections of an online world [1]. The discipline is the study and measurement of human populous, including mortality and fertility rates, human behaviors, and cultural trends [1]. With the rise of the Web, and by extension new Web phenomena such as privacy issues, social media, and new tools, Demography has a huge new range of online resources at its disposal [2].

Ultimately, everything that you share with the Web is telling us how and why the Human race is changing [2].

 Social media in particular has become a treasure trove of statistics and demographics, but what’s the point of analysing digital footprints if they have no real-life impact? This thought intrigued me as the only online demographics I had seen were either governmental statistics, eccentric academics predicting the decline of the human race, or the occasional opinionated Politics student stickin’ it to the man on Facebook.

Web-based tools, online business strategy and online privacy issues all go beyond traditional Demography, and as such reflect the impact that the Web has had on the discipline.

 

  1. Google Analytics

With the establishment of the Web, human behavior has changed and with it so has technology [3].

As traditional demographics exist to make sense of behavioral changes in population, the Web is a perfect example of cultural change that has shifted behavioral norms [2]. The socio-technical nature of the Web has been built on top of heterogeneous networks, as such actors and networks are continually developed upon by surround social aspects such as behavioral norms and business connections [2]. Building on new business enhancements, the Web has seen the rise of technologies designed to provide tailored individual demographics – this is basically now allows anyone to step into a demographer’s shoes [3].

Demography isn’t reserved for academic and scientific research anymore [2] [3].

Google Analytics consists of a series of reports regarding a website’s visitor information such as:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Personal Interests
  • Location
  • Re-marketing value
  • Home-ownership status
  • Previous purchasing history
  • Marital status

Google Analytics is a fantastic example of modern Demography on the Web, as not only does it churn out tonnes of data, but it also shows that businesses are placing much higher importance on understanding their website visitors, and thus the heterogeneous networks the Web operates on [3]. I suppose it’s easier to take that as a compliment rather than considering yourself as a series of stats on a company computer.

Web tools such as Google analytics have opened up the game for companies to exploit the online market, and represent how new technological artefacts are shaped by social forces both online and offline  [3]. Business enhancement strategies are now littered across multiple platforms as advertising to Web users is one of the most profitable frameworks on the Web [4].

 

  1. Business enhancement

The Web is a huge business opportunity where companies can market directly into your home, and even your hand [3] [4].

 Spanning hundreds of years, traditional business enhancement techniques used to focus primarily on resource management and marketing [1]. Although this is still the case, the emergence of the Web changed business structure radically by opening up a whole new online market that did not depend on location (unlike traditional Demography) [1].

There is a now a wealth of articles, blogs and free advice journals that are encouraging companies to utilise online demographics, especially from social media, in order to tailor their businesses strategies. For example:

  • 189 million people use Facebook only on their phone
  • The fastest growing demographic on Twitter is the 55-64 year age bracket
  • Every second two new members join LinkedIn
  • Social media has overtaken porn as the top activity on the Web
  • Even though 62% of marketers blog, only 9% of companies employ a blogger [4]

Based on the examples above, new demographics suggest embracing the changes and opportunities much in the same way traditional demographics highlighted new areas of expansion [4].  This also reflects the areas in which social aspects are shaping future technologies through the Web. Such a positive expansion for a business however may result in negative consequences for Web users [5]. I’m sure none of us are exempt from the use of AdBlock, or outrageous news articles declaring that our online identities have probably been stolen and re-named to generate perfect feedback. I hear mine is probably called Alan, and is looking for a lovely semi-detached house near Exeter.

  1. Privacy Issues Online

Thanks to online business enhancement, companies are now using selling more and more data to third parties [5].

 Building on the success of online demographics which companies have used for business enhancement strategies, there are some key limitations that have arisen concerning data protection on the Web [5]. These include:

  • The emergence of Banners (clickable parts of a Web page used to show adverts for products. Often these are tailored to an individual based on cookies)
  • Companies paying increasing amounts for advertising space
  • The subsequent dominance of advertising as the top profit generator on the Web
  • Higher value placed on personal information (As certain user demographics are more likely to buy certain products)
  • The subsequent selling of personal information to third parties interested in increasing advertising to certain demographics
  • A general lack of enforcement of the Online Data Protection Act [5]

The levels of data harvesting are incomparable in scale to traditional Demography projects, and are now used for a much wider range of applications, with many more parties handling and analysing the data [5]. Despite a range of online actors, only one or two will be dominant within a network, subsequently making data handling an important consideration for issues such as privacy.

Closing thoughts

Online Demography, although having roots in traditional demographic measures and assessments of population, has become an entirely different branch of the discipline.  The complex economics of the Web and certain technologies that it features are therefore dependent on this new branch of Web demographics and statistics [3].

If online demographics are used by businesses to market products, tailor adverts, and sell information on, should there be some form of regulatory framework in place to restrict the publication of statistics and demographics?

 Certainly, in traditional Demography this used to be the case. However with the growing realisation that making figures freely available had valuable impacts on community, Demography began to change during the UK Governmental reforms in the 1980s [1]. The benefits of making governmental study results available include allowing multiple people to cross-check results, easier identification of anomalies, using figures to perform further analysis on a subject that wasn’t taken into consideration in the original study and corroborating conclusions that studies claimed [1] [5].

The publishing of demographics and statistics, whether on the Web or not, marks a new era of open sourced data and accessibility [2]. Ultimately this will be one of the aspects that helps to shape the science of the future, and so individuals like you and me should be rallying for it [2]. Instead of questioning the morality of providing statistics, we should be directing our attention to the online business and marketing campaigns: after all the Online Data Protection Act rarely comes into play [5].

I suggest a ‘transactional’ privacy mechanism. This can be applied to personal information of users, allowing them to decide what personal information about themselves is put on sale, while being able to get compensation for it [5]. As a result your digital footprint, while still being able to provide vital demographic information that can explain how and why we are changing throughout the Information Age will also limit the effects of advertising of the online world. This will provide us with the power to have control over our own image on the Web [3] [5].

 

References

[1] E. Boserup, Population and technological change: A study of long-term trends, popline.org, 1981.
[2] T. Correa, A. Hinsley and H. Gil de Zuniga, Who interacts on the Web?: The intersection of users’ personality and social media use, Computers in Human Behavior, Vol 26, Issue 2, Pp. 247-253, 2010.
[3] B. Clifton, Advanced Web Metrics with Google Analytics, John Wiley & Sons, 2012.
[4] B. Cooper, 10 SURPRISING SOCIAL MEDIA STATISTICS THAT WILL MAKE YOU RETHINK YOUR SOCIAL STRATEGY, [Online] Available at http://www.fastcompany.com/3021749/work-smart/10-surprising-social-media-statistics-that-will-make-you-rethink-your-social-stra, 2013.
[5] C. Riederer, A. Chaintreau and B. Krishnamurthy, For sale: your data: by: you, In Proceedings of the 10th ACM WORKSHOP on Hot Topics in Networks (p. 13). ACM, 2011.