MAS 961 week 7: Depicting people


[if you did not read last week's reading, please do so!]

George Simmel, How is society possible? In On Individuality and Social Forms

Holland and Skinner, Prestige and intimacy. In Cultural models of language and thought (Holland and Quinn, Eds.)

Lawrence Hirschfeld, Race in the Making. Chps. 0, 1

things to think about:

The question of how to represent people is very complex and the goal of this week's assignment is to get you thinking about the issues.

How do we form our impression of other people? In real life, we see a very little bit about them - their face, their clothes, perhaps a few words - and from that may form a rather detailed (though not necessarily correct) impression of them. We do this by having a mental collection of categories/prototypes of people; the bits we see are cues that we use to assign an individual to a category, from which we then derive our beliefs about other aspects of their character. (I am using the words category and prototype almost interchangeably here, which they are not, especially in the realm of cognitive science. We will discuss this further in class). While the details of the prototypes are subjective and differ from person to person, they are also shared throughout a culture. Indeed, there are those who would argue that it is the shared prototypes and categories that make a group of people a (sub)culture.

Our readings this week are about how we form and use these categories.

One of the most significant social aspects of the online world is that most of the identity cues we are accustomed to are missing. No face, clothes, voice etc. While this can be quite liberating - particularly diminishing immediate stereotyping of people based on race, gender, weight, etc. - there are also deep problems. Categorization is useful - it is how we make sense of the world and reuse useful information.The lack of representation makes it difficult to distinguish individuals.

The visualization question is: How can we create representations of people that are richly detailed and evocative enough to serve as the basis for forming an impression of the depicted person?

There are a number of big questions that go along with this. For example, who creates and controls this portrayal? Is it a self-portrait, made by the subject? Is it an algorithmic portrait, generated by Netscape Newsreader vers. 29.8? Is it reputation revealing portrait, collectively created by one's peers? What is the extent of this portrait: does it show a person in a single context (eg a single discussion forum) or is it a multicontextual depiction, showing a range of the subject's life and interests?

You will not solve all of these issues in this assignment, but do keep them in mind....


  1. Do the readings. I am not requiring a written essay, but please jot down questions, comments and critiques you have as you read so we can discuss them in class.
  2. Returning to online newsgroups. In one or several groups, pick about 5-10 people to depict. (You will probably want to use Google Groups to find all of a person's postings). Use the same approach to depict all of them - your goal is to find a way of visualizing these people that will make at least some of them stand out as distinctive in some way. Think about what are the characteristics you are depicting - is it their style of interaction? role in the group? self-description?  What makes your representation evocative? Do you incorporate any of their text in it? This assignment again can be done on paper (or other medium of your choice). You do have some extra time with this assignment and I'd like you to think hard about it. Spend some time looking through the groups and thinking about what makes particular people stand out - what makes you feel like you have a strong impression of them?