Does the Internet See the REAL Me?

Privacy and identity are lightning rods when you talk about the Internet. Many of us are social animals and are apparently somewhat fearless when it comes to using the web to share, gather and communicate. Our polar opposites wouldn’t go anywhere near anything as risky as that, fearing others will find out too much and use it to harm them. I make no judgements. It’s a purely personal choice people will make.

When we meet people we instantly begin to process who they are based on what we know and our prior experiences. These vary depending on if we are having a phone conversation, an in person meeting, or an e-mail exchange. But what if all we could get was their digital fingerprint? I’ve occasionally wondered how I would be characterized if there was a sophisticated program capable of searching the web based on the slightest of clues, like my name, and assemble what was found into a “digital characterization.” Well the wait is over. At least the first phase of it. MIT has been working on just such a project called Personas. Here is how they describe the project’s philosophy.

In a world where fortunes are sought through data-mining vast information repositories, the computer is our indispensable but far from infallible assistant. Personas demonstrates the computer’s uncanny insights and its inadvertent errors, such as the mischaracterizations caused by the inability to separate data from multiple owners of the same name. 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.

Here’s their rundown on how it works.

Enter your name, and Personas scours the web for information and attempts to characterize the person – to fit them to a predetermined set of categories that an algorithmic process created from a massive corpus of data. The computational process is visualized with each stage of the analysis, finally resulting in the presentation of a seemingly authoritative personal profile.

Of course anyone who visits the site will immediately put in their own name, quickly followed by others. Perhaps friends, co-workers, family, famous people. It’s fascinating experiment. After typing in my name and kicking off the system you get a building persona series of pages. This is mine about half way through.

Characterizing Steve A Furman
Click image to enlarge

This is my final characterization.

Steve A Furman MIT Persona
Click image to enlarge

How did it do? Surprisingly well. It got the major attributes spot on.

  • Online
  • Management
  • Movies
  • Social

I don’t have the data dictionary, so I can’t decipher it exactly. I wonder what’s included in aggression and illegal? Since they are probably not scouring content behind sites that require log-ins (my assumption), like Facebook, lots of information is missing. The result ranks family well down the list, but a large part of my Facebook content is family related. Not perfect, and not trying to be. An evolving experiment on the ever growing digital trail.

Try it yourself here.

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