I was playing with Personas this morning a gadget from the MIT Media Lab. You give it your name, and, according to the site it “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.”
Basically, it combs the web and spits out a pretty bar chart that characterizes you into different categories based on what it found associated with your name.
There are some really interesting ways you could use this in class. The one that immediately jumps to mind is to bring home that trope of “the Internet is your permanent record” to kids – even if you think things are private, they’re not – and look this Web site can find it all out.
But I think another great use would be to show kids how fallible the Internet can be. I searched for my name three different ways: 1) my maiden name, which I used as a byline as a tech reporter, and which also happens to be the name of a semi-famous artist; 2) my married name, which was remarkably popular with 19th century German nuns; and 3) what I tend to go by now, First Maiden Married. Comparing the three results is informative, to say the least.
The Personas site is quite upfront about this issue. In the FAQ, under the “these results are not me” section, the site responds “And what is “you?” We are only given a name, and that is what we search for. Reflect on issues of privacy and anonymity online, and the issues surrounding name collisions and uniqueness. This is an issue of large society implications, as the TSA recently testified to Congress.”
That should really get kids thinking. If “the Internet” can be utterly wrong about who you are, how do you know whether it’s right about anything else? How do you decide? Who says?