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Published July 3rd 2018

Search and Social: Exploring Observation, Honesty and Connecting Our Complex Online Identities

Are we more honest when we use search engines than when we post on social media? A look at how our social and search data footprints complement each other.

As humans, many of the ways in which we behave and present ourselves depend on the situation we’re in.

As we grow up and encounter new situations we learn about what’s appropriate in what circumstances. It’s not OK to curse in front of your grandma, it’s OK to gossip among friends, it’s not OK to run around the street naked. Of course, all of these are subjective. Your grandma might curse like a sailor, your friends might not take kindly to the gossip you’re dishing out and you might be taking part in a naked bike ride for charity.

In this blog post we’ll be exploring how we’ve come to organise what is and what isn’t appropriate within different online spaces and in particular how we use search engines and social media in different ways, leaving behind different but complementary footprints.

We behave differently under observation

The way we act as humans often depends on whether people are watching us, as well as who those people are.

Newcastle University’s School of Psychology demonstrated that even the most subtle symbols of observation can be enough to change people’s behaviour.

In a university cafeteria the academics tested the effects of posters with eyes on them (and various iterations of those posters) on whether people would pick up their litter once they had finished eating.

“We found a halving of the odds of littering in the presence of posters featuring eyes, as compared to posters featuring flowers. This effect was independent of whether the poster exhorted litter clearing or contained an unrelated message, suggesting that the effect of eye images cannot be explained by their drawing attention to verbal instructions.”

Newcastle University, “Effects of eye images on everyday cooperative behavior: a field experiment”


Meanwhile, sociologist Erving Goffman likened social interaction with performance art. The personas we present to others are highly dependent on the audiences we encounter and the impressions we want to make on them.

If you think about a carefully crafted LinkedIn profile or an Instagram page that’s tended like a garden it’s easy to see how these ideas can be applied to online spaces.

Depending on our audience, we display particular attributes and aspects of our personality and our online actions that are intended to be seen by others are almost certainly different to those that are not.

We don’t necessarily walk around the house alone in a full face of make-up, but we might make the impression that we do on Instagram. And we might create an online Wish List as a birthday approaches to direct well wishers to potential gifts, but we tend not to make our shopping lists public when the items include toilet paper or ointment.

When alone we are uninhibited by what people think

When we’re alone we can take off our public faces and act in ways we might not around others. We might eat an extra scoop of ice cream with dessert or skip an exercise class when our gym buddy is on vacation.

In his book ‘Everybody Lies: What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are,’ Seth Stephens-Davidowitz explores the idea of being alone when we’re online.

“The more impersonal the conditions, the more honest people will be. For eliciting truthful answers, internet surveys are better than phone surveys, which are better than in-person surveys. People will admit more if they are alone than if others are in the room with them.”

Extract from “Everybody Lies: What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are”

An impersonal search engine box, he writes, is basically digital truth serum. “Remember the conditions that make people more honest. Online? Check. Alone? Check. No person administering a survey? Check.”

The quotes we’ve taken from Seth Stephens-Davidowitz here allude to the value of an impersonal setting when trying to elicit truthful answers. When unfettered by what others think, we are more likely to reveal details we would otherwise keep hidden.

But we should be careful not to assume that the presence of other humans makes us behave in dishonest ways.

Our many sides

Goffman, mentioned above, doesn’t suggest that all our interactions are cynical and insincere even if we are putting on a performance. While we are curating a persona, we are not necessarily being disingenuous to our “true” selves (if such a self exists, but that’s another topic entirely).

Just like face to face interactions, social media doesn’t force people to be dishonest. When we write notes of condolence, messages of complaint or sprawling rants about politics we’re not expressing any less of an honest angle of ourselves than if we’re anonymously searching online for how to get rid of a verruca.

On social, dependent on the forum, (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, blogs, comment sections, etc) we can portray aspirational versions of ourselves as well as candidly discuss our motivations, virtues, vices, feedback and opinions.

Just how Google searches are unprompted by a researcher, online posts also offer unprompted qualitative meditations on all aspects of life.

While both search and social can give us data relating to the truths of those who generate it, they offer different perspectives on our identities. The spaces in which we type are either public or private and the ways in which we craft the words are totally different.

The what and the why: Identifying interest and what drives it

When we search for something, we can derive that someone is interested in finding out information about it.

When we post an opinion about something or express frustration with doing something, we can derive contextual information.

While search can tell you what people are interested in, social can tell you why. The intention behind a search is vital context for analysts looking to make improvements to customer service, map out the customer journey or monitor public opinion around a brand.

If you observe a rapid increase in Google searches around a particular product, social data can give you the additional context required to take action. Perhaps an influencer has just recommended the product, or perhaps someone has reported a defect with it. Either way, action can be taken to be alerted to a potential boost in demand for the product or begin crisis procedures.

Search and social data can help us make connections between often sporadic data points to draw out patterns and comparisons that take into account the different ways people use the internet.

There are 3.5 billion Google searches every day and there are 3.1 billion people on the planet who are using social media – that’s a lot of data to learn from.

Brandwatch recently announced a new integration with our partners, Pi Datametrics, for our data visualization product Vizia that allows our customers to visualize search intelligence alongside their other key marketing data sources. Find out more here.

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