hugo :: brainstorms in sociable media (mas.961 '03)
"only as an æsthetic phenomenon is
existence and the world justified"

- nietzsche

 

             
 
       
               
 
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emotus ponens picture

::: portraying the individual :::
Nothing in the whole circle of human vanities takes stronger hold of the imagination than this affair of having a portrait painted - Nathaniel Hawthorne

 
 

Who portrays?

Portraiture is not objective. It's called portraiture for a reason, because a person is being portrayed. What's interesting here is that there is not one entity who controls the interpretation of a portraiture, but three. The artist, by his design or art, portrays a person by exposing, emphasizing, and presenting particular aspectual details. The subject, wanting to control the image that is forged from him, portrays by regulating his appearance and conduct. Ultimately, the audience exercises control in how the portraiture is interpreted. They decide if the portraiture fits into their expectations of the person, and whether or not it is a faithful reflection. The audience also portrays, because they will not necessarily judge the portraiture by the same criteria intended by the artist and subject.

In Portraiture, Brilliant quite accurately characterizes the classical "portrait" as a complexly planned and calculated depiction of a person, formed through the usually collaborative efforts of the subject and artist. The subject will dress and pose so as to convey a calculated subtext about his reputation, social stature, etc. The artist controls how the portrait is rendered by his or her choice of style and background, emphasis of particular aspects or features of the subject, and depiction of the subject's character. In commissioned portraits, there is a great deal of collaboration between the subject and artist in creating a portrait to convey the agenda the subject has paid for. In non-commissioned portraitures, typically of public figures or celebrities, artists can monopolize control over the representation of the public figure. The ease with which the artist can, using only very subtle techniques, shape the portrait to satirize, glorify, or objectify a person speaks to the control an artist holds in portrayal, and the important role of connotation in portraitures.

While the creation of portraiture is important, the consumption of portraiture is also of great importance, for it is the anticipation of how a portraiture will be consumed which motivates the creation process. In Inside Culture, David Halle explains that portraits are on decline in modern homes because of the erosion of formality, and the instability of the modern family. In the twentieth century, social acceptance standards have changed, causing formal ideas about family to be relaxed and replaced with informal portrayals, such as a family in a leisurely setting. The instability of modern marriages have bred reluctance in couples to invest in potentially un-displayable couple portraits. Finally, the twentieth-century individualism taboo has made people reluctant to pose for clearly recognizable portraits, and because family and couple portraits are equally outmoded, a person often demands an abstract, closer-to-art portrait. The changing role of portraiture in the twentieth century is clearly attributable to the control exercised by the audience -- society and its changing standards.

 

Portraiture in the Online World

In the world of online forums, portraiture is still alive, but of a very different nature. In a common situation, the "artist" is replaced by an online medium that renders particular fixed attributes of the user. For example, a user may boost the number of posts he has made in order improve that statistic in his profile. Or, a user on friendster.com might try to add as many strangers as "friends" as is possible, in order to boost his statistical popularity. This predictability of how the artificial "artist" will depict a user changes the dynamics of control in the subject-artist relationship, often empowering the subject to much more meticulously controlling how he/she is portrayed. It is often the goal of users in online forums to portray themselves as having the greatest presence, the greatest reputation, and the greatest popularity. When the artistic medium is too easy to manipulate, the portrait looses its information value.

Manipulability by the subject ruins an online portraiture, because credibility is key. The audience in an online forum is particularly interested in being able to accurately assess the presence, reputation, and popularity of others, to help defuse the risk of online dealings and interactions. The audience must assume, by caution, that there are some users out there who will consciously misrepresent themselves, and portraiture that is easily manipulated is not trustworthy. The online audience is much more intent on using portraiture to achieve its information-gathering goals than is a traditional offline audience. The more foolproof a portraiture, the more accurate and informative it is.

So how do we design online portraiture to be complete, informative, and credible? In Irving Goffman's words, a person gives an expression, and gives off an impression. A user's self-representation should be considered because a user will want to speak his/her peace. Also, a user's self-representation is often informative to the audience because it informs them about a user's potential goals. However, we should also design for components of portraiture not easily manipulated by the subject -- the impression given off. For example, a user's browsing history, a purchasing history, messaging statistics, a user's membership and participation in online forums. Not that these histories can't be manipulated, because even Goffman concedes that impressions given off can be manipulated to some extent, but histories in general are not economic to fake because they are so elaborate and take so much effort to fabricate. Thus, these online histories correspond to something between a conventional signal and assessment signal. A third important aspect of portraiture is the audience. In the online portraiture, there is a particular opportunity to explicitly incorporate the feedback of the audience into the portrait. For example, Friendster allows friends to post testimonials (albeit, filtered by the subject) for the user, and these become a part of the online portrait. Also, ebay users are subject to uneditable feedback about them by users who have interacted with them in the past. The audience component of a portraiture could be particularly credible and informative because it is more or less foolproof.

What might such an online portraiture look like? AIM Profiles is a good example of user self-representation in portraiture. Lifelines is a good example of the role of histories in portraiture. And ebay's feedback is a good example of audience input in portraiture. But can we combine self-representation, histories, and audience-input into a single portrait? If we could do so, we should illustrate the contrasts between self-representation, history-representation, and audience-representation, because it is reputatibility and credibility that are central information goals of the audience. Something like a Friendster profile page achieves all three goals. The majority of the profile consists of a user's self-representation. If a user portrays himself as popular, the audience can verify the information to some extent by examining the user's friend-count or testimonial-count. The content of the testimonials can be thought of as audience-input, and either confirm or call into question a user's self-portrayal. It would be neat to bubble up more statistics about a user, such as the people he has messaged, or the number of testimonials he has written, or the number of friend requests he has initiated versus accepted. However, privacy issues often provide hard constraints on the contents of the online portrait.

A Sketch of An Interactive Affective Portrait

I have sketched an interactive portrait that can be generated from any text-based online forum. I have often found that "profiles" constitute an overly general portrait of a person, not necessarily in terms of attributes important to a particular person so much as attributes that are generic enough to accomodate all users. My hope for an interactive portrait is partially justified by my work in the linguistic modeling of personal attitudes from the text of online forums. (cf. What Would They Think?) In this work, computational models of a person's atittudes were automatically generated from a history of a person's participation in an online forum, or a history of posts to a weblog. This models powered a digital persona that could react to typed text by being aroused, showing pleasure and displeasure, and showing confidence or weakness. In my opinion, learning about a person through interaction rather than by viewing a static representation allows more information to be conveyed in a more just-in-time manner. I'd like to think of not one, but three faces for each interactive portraiture. The "impressed" face is a digital persona derived from the history of a person's expressed atittudes in an online forum. The "expressed" face is a digital persona that can be programmed by a person, and is thus a self-representation. The external "face" relates how a whole community feels about a person expressing a particular topic. In the above sketch, Seymour Papert claims to be quite postive and aroused by "LOGO." However, this is inconsistent with the history of how he has talked about LOGO (impressed), in which he has never seemed very excited about it (represented by the darkened face). Finally, the community that Seymour is in has always reacted quite favorably and excitedly about Seymour on the topic of "LOGO". The hope is that the juxtaposition of these three representations will help to inform the audience about the consistency between what Seymour presents himself to be (expressed), what he has been in the past (impressed), and how others have perceived him to be (external), thus helping the audience decide Seymour's reputability.

 

 

                                                                           

H U G O . . L I U ...
PH.D. CANDIDATE, MEDIA ARTS & SCI.
RESEARCH ASSISTANT, MIT MEDIA LAB
interactive experience group

commonsense computing group
counter intelligence
hugo at media dot mit dot edu