Online There’s More Than One of You

A couple of weeks ago I wrote an article on this blog that highlighted the issues around managing our digital identity.

Managing our digital identity through those sources we know about is a challenge for a significant percentage of the online population

Then this morning, (ex Yahoo!) Cathy Ma posted a link to her recent blog post about the Personas project being run by Aaron Zinman at MIT. Personas tries to “show you how the internet sees you”. So I duly surfed over to and plugged in my full name and some time later a rather slick Flash animation gave me this supposed “characterization of the person”.

gary gale Persona

Anything but the most cursory of glances quickly showed that something was wrong. If this is how the internet sees me, where does sports, fashion and medicine come from? So I tried again, this time under my usual net nickname, vicchi. Some more chugging and analysing later and I had a second characterization of the online me.

vicchi Persona

It’s different but it’s still not right, sports are still there but now they’ve been joined by military, aggression and illegal. So I reran both characterizations and this time looked at what was going on and I went through the full spectrum from WTF to OMG.

3158864420_cca98b531a_oThe characterizer was looking at a selection of web references to Gary Gale and to vicchi, but it wasn’t just me, it was any reference that could be found, which means that my supposed characterization is a mashup of all the possible Gary Gale’s and vicchi’s.

Sadly, this relegates the Personas project to merely an intriguing but ultimately flawed experiment, because unless you have a really unique name, online there’s going to be more than one of you.

Written by Gary

Husband, Father, geotechnologist, map geek, coffee addict, Sci-fi fan, UNIX and Mac user.


Shaun McDonald

It won’t let me use my typical username since it contains numbers and is only one word. There is some sports player in the states with the same name as been, hence it being completely skewed.


I thought I really had a unique name – yes the tool seems to work mostly for people having unique names – but my former designer self was just very intrigued in the interface and the look and feel of the project. I found that extremely well-made on the loading phases, and I hope Zinman does have a way to track valuable user feedback like your blog post above.

Did you get to see a few columns of names apart from yours?

@Shaun I thought so too, I’ll probably have much more interesting results using my geek-dentity instead of real name but unfortunately that’s one word too.


@Cathy I really like the term “geek-dentity” and I fully intend to plagiarise this in future.

I didn’t see any names other than mine though, which makes me rather curious about the methodology of collating name references and the algorithm which then mines those references.

I’m also wondering whether @Shaun had problems with his geek-dentity due to the numbers present within it, as I was able to use vicchi with no problems at all.

Aaron Zinman

Glad you liked Personas as much as you did. Note, it is a critique of data mining and what happens when online history is as important as offline. Issues surrounding name collisions are a part of it. You are also missing it from its original museum context, where it is one piece among several others on a theme. I invite you to read the text in the application, as it goes into more depth about this, and has a link to a video of the installation.


Comments are closed.