My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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impression management: blogs as terrible representations

I spent the weekend co-running the Social Software in the Academy Workshop which was mighty fun and stimulating (with scattered notes on the wiki). As i was rushing out, one attendee said he was so glad he came, it was good to see people in person. And then he said something about how i’m much nicer in person. Hmmm….

This comment definitely stung, although i don’t think he meant it to. One of the problems with impression management in situations with unknown audiences and impossible-to-read reactions is that it’s really difficult to gauge how you’re being perceived. I have no clue how people envision me based on my digital persona except that folks always say that i’m much different in person. Conversely, my friends tell me that my blog is clearly a projection of me. But they can probably hear my voice in my ramblings.

I need to think about this more, but it’s a really interesting problem. I’ve written about the problems with coarse data before, explicitly talking about what happens when we build models of individuals based on feedback like A/S/L. Given Aronsons’ work (in brief, first impressions matter and are near impossible to overturn), coarse data is highly problematic. The thing about blogging is that it appears to be rich data, not coarse data. Yet, at the same time, how are the mental models of an individual connected to them? And worse, how do our models based on digital interactions fail to prepare us for what happens when we interact? This has huge implications on our ability to get to know people online.

I don’t know why but i don’t hold on to names. Ever. In any situation. This is actually very convenient for the digital/physical separation. I email with hundreds of people a day and yet, if i don’t know them in everyday life, i won’t build a model around their name and face. Instead, i build a model around friendly@yahoo.com or whatever. So, when i see friendly’s name in my inbox, i have a mental model. The thing that i don’t do is connect friendly to Sally Smith so when i meet Sally, i never remember having emailed with that person. It takes meeting Sally and then moving the physical conversation back to the digital for me to start to connect the pieces.

Of course, this can be quite embarrassing too. For example, i’ve read Mathemagenic for a long time and have talked with its author on various occasions. Separately, i regularly heard about a blogger named Lilia who my friends raved about. I met Lilia last month and immediately connected her with the person that my friends talked about. It took me a few hours before a friend slapped me over the head for having disconnected models of the same person and thus failing to realize that i should love Lilia 10 times more. Oops. (I love you Lilia!) Of course, this really sent me for a loop because the model i built of Lilia based on friends wasn’t far off but the model based on Mathemagenic was a different world. I realized that somehow, the Radioland style had made me generically build a model of all Radioland users which is not particularly helpful at all.

So what are the mental models we build based on blogs? For being so rich, i suspect that they’re really poor representations of people we don’t know. Has anyone else experienced disconnects between blogs and the RL person? Or is this just me?

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7 comments to impression management: blogs as terrible representations

  • apophenia: impression management: blogs as terrible representations

    Link: apophenia: impression management: blogs as terrible representations.

  • Maybe there’s something to be said about blogspace being less conducive to the kind of immediate interaction you can get f2f. And that maybe the rapid back and forth that happens in person just can’t be substituted. But it’s still very difficult to get to “know” someone in one sitting, and true intimacy still develops over time — with many pictures of self exchanged between the parties in various mediums, which somehow creates a sense of “knowing” that is larger than the sum of those individual interactions. Why does it have to be a value judgment of which medium is “more difficult,” or which allows a better “picture” of self? They’re all imperfect, and the mental models we make will always be incomplete. There are misunderstandings in all interactions — though maybe there is a case that in blog world it’s sometimes harder to ask for clarification and get a satisfying response. So then, maybe it’s the level of interaction that’s key (in whatever medium), with more interaction = higher probability of realistically knowing.

    Then again, I think about some of the authors I’ve read and dearly loved over the course of my life, many of whom are long dead and whom I will never meet — yet I feel that somehow I have known something essential about their souls and that that knowledge has been real and powerful enough to carry me through dark times when I’ve felt alone, just knowing they existed. Is that a kind of knowing someone? If I had met them in person, would they have shattered all of those thoughts and presented a picture that was very different? Quite possibly. But then — is the experience I had of “knowing” them, and the effect it had on my life, any less real?

    And then, there are those people we meet once and instantly grok, and others we see every day and never really get, and a corresponding parallel effect in blogworld. So it can’t be about the medium alone… it has to be some special alchemy that turns strangers into friends, and no matter what mediates that process, we can always learn to be more open to the transformation, and more forgiving of the misunderstandings en route.

    This question reminds me of this thread, which I was just tripping on the other night. How funny.

  • This is a very interesting phenomenon. Pepperdine University’s Online MA in Eduactional Technology has long had the motto that students in the program need to “be real before being virtual”, and structures the program so that students have a week-long, face to face experience at the beginning of the program. The effect of this is that when students return home to commence with the year-long program, they can put a voice/face/personal experience with the online personality with whom they are trying to build a community of learning. Contrast this with an online program where people don’t have that physical resource, and you have a very interesting picture of what “being real” adds to an online relationship.

  • tony

    well, it reminds me of those stories about prison pen pals… 😉

  • Well, I had seen your blog before I met you, and thinking back, I was not surprised by your pink hair, but I was a little surprised that you hugged me goodbye.

    I think this blog accurately conveys parts of you that can be conveyed verbally — the intellectual sharpness and the questioning and the introspection. But it doesn’t really get across that your speech is peppered with non-verbal sound effects, and you’re cuddly and so is your cat. Knowing you f2f, the blog persona fits quite naturally with the rest of you. Not knowing you f2f, you can only guess what the “rest of you” is.

    hmm. and now I miss you guys and wish I were back in SF. Which I will be in about a week. I’ll try to catch you before you leave for my motherland. 🙂

  • Reading this has made me smile inside and out! I just wrote something about this very topic on my blog – although not nearly as eloquently. It’s been coming up for me over and over this past month. I wonder if the universe is trying to tell me something… Hmmm time for some introspective analysis.

  • Reality as just another kind of media

    danah boyd has an excellent observation piece on her blog apophenia in which she discusses the problems with connecting together physical and digital persona for the same person. From the entry: … Given Aronsons’ work (in brief, first impressions mat…