To Take the Stage

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Personas, a Metropath(ologies) exhibit by the MIT Media Lab, creates a portrait of online identities according to algorithms that scour the web. A great concept, created by Aaron Zinman, and I was eager to see how it painted me. After entering my name, a quick check aggregated relevant online data and created a somewhat vague description of a person that is associated with books, news, online, and legal. Me, supposedly. Or, at least, the online version. The beautiful ‘problem’ is that my name brings up many references to ‘Carly Simon’ or ‘Cameron Diaz’, but the influence of mischaracterizations is part of the whole concept. Interestingly, this depends on the analysis, for every time I entered my name, I received a different assessment. A nice reflection of the liveness of the online world.

“It is meant for the viewer to reflect on our current and future world where digital histories are as important – if not more important – than oral histories, and computational methods of condensing our digital traces are opaque and socially ignorant – for now. Fortunes are sought through data-mining vast information repositories, and this kind of data is indispensable but far from infallible.”

In Latin, the word persōna carries with it a connotation of the theatre, which is often carried over into the English use of the word. The persona is the mask or character that the actor assumes before taking the stage, or our public face. As individuals living out our lives (often simultaneously) in local and online spheres, this concept enters a new dimension where the multitude of scenes requires us to approach in full character at the blink of an eye. On LinkedIn, I am a professional. On my blog, I am a curious writer. On my bike, I am a local. At work, I am focused. At home, I am everything and nothing. This fascinating and sometimes exhausting fact of life isn’t anything new. Anyone who has ever read a Jane Austen book sees the extent to which social expectations dictate the intricacies of our interactions. Propriety and sensibility become attuned to the expectations and norms of society and the responses they demand. We adorn ourselves in the proper persona in order to join the dance, to take the stage, which has been set before and the lines have been memorized. As T.S. Eliot said, ‘Humankind cannot bear very much reality.’ So, we assume our positions, even online.

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