Every week it seems there's another reason to worry that your online life isn't yours, and that what you do online is really just fodder for the Great Marketer In The Sky. Take a recent study by Nielsen, the folks best known for rating TV and radio programming, but who also have a sizable interest in measuring online behavior.
The study made a few headlines because of its findings about class distinctions: Facebook users are mostly upscale, while MySpace users are, well, not, Nielsen says, for example. And Facebookers are much more likely than MySpacers to use LinkedIn, the social networking tool for businesses and professionals.
In a lot ways, the big picture isn't that surprising: people with money who live in urban areas spend more time tweeting and blogging. Any Starbucks barista could tell you that. But just as interesting is the degree to which Nielsen breaks everything down to reveal behavior patterns.
Bloggers and tweeters tend to live in more urban areas, Nielsen says. (They named "New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago," just in case anyone had any doubts. We'll assume the Twin Cities are part of that category.)
The data points get pretty fine: "The penetration rates of the top two most visited blogging platforms (Blogger, Wordpress) and the most popular micro-blogging platform (Twitter) show that Nielsen's 12 Urban lifestyle segments are more likely to blog and tweet than Nielsen's 22 Town and Rural segments."
How does Nielsen know this? They've piled time, expertise and money into the endeavor, and they're pretty sure they've got the country dialed, breaking the U.S. down into 66 different demographic segments for the benefit of advertisers and marketers who want to "get inside the mind" of consumers. That demographic data is combined with the behavior of 200,000 Web users called "online panelists" to fuel Nielsen's pronouncements.
In the old days we used to call stuff like this "stereotyping."
"Young Digerati are the nation's tech-savvy singles and couples living in fashionable neighborhoods on the urban fringe," Nielsen says. In the "Kids and cul-de-sacs" sector you find "upscale, suburban, married couples with children ... a lifestyle of large families in recently built subdivisions." And then there's the "Heartlanders" category, which includes "older couples with working-class jobs living in sturdy, unpretentious homes."
Sixty-six demographic categories covering the entire United States. A couple of hundred-thousand human lab rats with screens and mice. An army of folks with clipboards and spreadsheets. It's scary to think how hard these people work to figure out how to sell you soap, and in the process reveal how predictable your behavior can be.
And you thought you were so unique? Really?