Research Persona as Digital Method

Team Members

Carina Albrecht, Elena Aversa, Kath Bassett, Liliana Bounegru, Wendy Chun, Nayana Dhavan, Adam Ferron, Jonathan Gray, Anne Helmond, Ben Hunter, Daniel Joseph, Ioana Jucan, Alexandra Juhasz, Ganaele Langlois, Lieke Rademakers, Noemi Schiavi, Julia Scott, Linan Tang, Kim van Ruiven, Fernando van der Vlist, Esther Weltevrede, Yixiu Wu, Chris Young, Alice Ziantoni, Bruno Zilli.


1. Research Persona as Digital Method: Exploring the Temporality and Affectivity of Information Disorders

This project is concerned with personalised information disorders on social media. The question is how to study information disorders in times of personalisation. There seems to be a discrepancy between big data scrapes and the highly personalised media practices of current media environments. While some strands of digital research bracket out the user and their practices, this is not always achievable or desirable when studying personalised media spaces, even when users and their practices are not the main focus.

This project experimented with the research persona (cf. Dieter et al.), a research-dedicated account to track activities and information online. More specifically it developed four perspectives for research persona making: (1) the self-persona, (2) the ‘ready to connect’ persona, (3) the fictional persona and (4) ‘in media res’ persona.

1. The Self Persona: Exploring the Self as User with the Walkthrough Method

The objective of this exercise is to explore the depth of the user experience, to uncover its affective charge and to develop skills for researching affect.

Being a social media user is paradoxically a lonely experience. While as users we might spend our time connecting with information and with other users, what we actually feel when we engage in these practices is not something that we usually discuss. Most of us might actually feel uncomfortable and anxious with being a user - after all, we are trying to project an image of ourselves that we know is a fabrication. Being a user is an exercise in crafting modes of being, of relating in usually complex, demanding digital environments. How do we negotiate this mediation?

Being a user is an intimate, private experience, even though as users we are constantly captured, monitored, profiled, prompted, probed by the platform we are on, and by other users. As users as well, we strategize our practices, making choices as to how we engage with platform affordances. What drives these choices and what do they reveal about how we understand our positioning as users and respond to it?

This exercise is about exploring our user experience. We work in pairs to understand how we navigate, use and connect on specific platforms, the sense of self we derive from it and the negotiations that we engage with. This is an ethnographic approach where we move from identifying with a user account to looking at it from another perspective, and therefore understanding the interplay between our actions and inputs and the ways in which the platform prompts us to act.

Instructions: working in pairs, choose one of your social media accounts (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Youtube, etc), and walk your partner through your typical use of your account. Your partner will ask you questions such as: “how often do you check this account?”, “how long do you stay on it?” and other questions about why and how you use a specific platform. Purposefully describe to your partners how you interact with the interface, why you posted specific kinds of information, how other users relate to you and so on. Pay attention to prompts from the platform: what kind of recommendations are generated, and how do you feel they relate to you and our intentions as a user of a platform?

Writing Exercise:
  • Describe the user as a person in one sentence. What overall sense of the user as a person do you derive from both what you saw on the interface, and what the user told about themselves?
  • Why is the person using this particular platform?
  • How is the person using this platform?
  • How does the person reacts to prompts from the platform?

2. ‘Ready to connect’ Persona: Exploring the Information Campaigner Perspective

The objective of this exercise is to explore how the digital media, PR and advertising ecosystems conceptualize the type of user they want to target within specific information disorder campaigns. This particular exercise draws from design and marketing, where imagining an ideal user for whom to design a product or service is common. However, it explores a complex ecosystem of information disorders, with many different actors (e.g. political parties, think tanks, NGOs, advocacy campaigners, advertisers, etc.), to understand the kind of aspects of the user that are targeted.

Through document and interface analysis, the aim is to understand the techniques and materials used to activate and enlist users in (dis)information campaigns. This is done by inhabiting, exploring and documenting media environments of the assembled research persona.

Steps that might be taken in this process include:

1. Mapping the data spaces of persona-making

Question: What is the data space of persona-making according to different platforms, devices, infrastructures and media spaces?

Issues to consider:
  • What are the data fields and categories which are available to advertisers and others who use platform data?
  • How are persons rendered legible and intelligible using data?
  • What are the data fields which are available to users when they sign up and use a platform?
  • What insights from the self-ethnographic exercise could be relevant for the creation of the research persona?
  • How are data spaces of persona-making organised across platforms, advertisers and other actors?
2. Assembling natively digital datasets for persona-making

Question: How can these data spaces be populated by repurposing natively digital methods and data?

Issues to consider:
  • What are the natively digital objects and methods which can be repurposed to understand user practices from the perspective of platforms and devices (e.g. links, tweets, likes, groups, hashtags, rankings, etc)?
  • What are existing datasets that could be repurposed as starting points (e.g. list of junk news stories)?
  • How can these be analysed to elicit features (eg topical interests) that can be used for persona making?
  • How can one “follow” natively digital objects in order to explore the relations between users, issues and devices?
  • What are the different ways of creating 1/10/100 personas based on your dataset?
  • What are the themes that might become a target of misinformation campaigns? (eg immigration)

3. Assembling other material for persona-making

Question: What other materials might be drawn upon for persona-making?

Issues to consider:
  • What sources can be used to understand users and user practices (e.g. targeting ads; demographic/ethnographic studies of content publics)?
  • Which fields could be populated using these materials?
4. (Co-)assembling personas

Question: How can these natively digital datasets and other materials be used to assemble personas?

Issues to consider:
  • What is present and what is missing in these materials to populate the data space of a given platform or device?
  • How can you use this data to attend to how personas are assembled from the perspective of platforms and devices?
  • How is it that personas can generated are made possible in specific ways in order to attend to the various interests of platform data users (e.g. advertisers, political parties, etc)?
  • What are the conditions of persona-making that you have encountered?
  • What decisions are involved in assembling personas?
  • What kinds of agencies are involved in assembling personas?
  • How many personas and how to combine and analyse different datasets and sources to create them?
  • Do you want to attend to the variety of different kinds of personas or weight them proportionally to the datasets that you have?
5. Exploring and documenting media environments with personas

Question: Once you have a user profile based on your persona, how can you use this to explore media environments?

Issues to consider:
  • How to occupy, inhabit and give life to the persona? What kinds of interactions might you have?
  • Regular/programmed interactions vs sporadic interaction
  • Acting on all vs some recommendations (and which)
  • Liking groups based on a set of seed content?
  • How can you observe, document, record and account for how the persona elicits certain kinds of content, personalisation, media environments, experiences, interactions?
  • What kinds of data might you gather from these explorations?
  • What are the ethical issues that arise?
  • For example around interacting with other users?
6. (Re-)staging and (re-)performing personas

Question: How might you restage, animate, enliven and produce encounters with the assembled persona?

Issues to consider:
  • How might you use the personas to (re-)perform an issue from different perspectives?
  • How can personas be animated in order to attend to their platformised, datafied and machinic conditions of co-production?
  • How might platform users and others engage with personas? What can they bring and what can they learn?
  • How might persona-making be broadened and modified from specific profesionalised practices (e.g. systems design, audience segmentation) to prompt critical encounters and reflections between persons and personas?
  • How can personas provide light on the various forms of methodological individualism and collectivism “baked into” platforms and devices?
  • How might the performance of a persona interfere with, breach, interrupt or otherwise intervene with the media environment under examination?

3. Fictional Persona

This exercise is based on character building techniques from theater practice, specifically character design guidelines developed by Elmo Terry-Morgan, adapted and extended by Ioana Jucan. The interest is in how to build a feeling, affective persona that has the capacity to meaningfully encounter and be transformed in the digital environment. We start by asking in what kind of situations would you need to create or feel comfortable creating a fictional character?

Character aspects to develop include:
  • Background + life-story: What are the remarkable/life-changing events in their background that shaped who they are and how they think. Is there a secret in their background? What kind of environment did they grow up in?
  • Rationale: What are the character’s goals and motivations? How do they go about achieving this? Are there obstacles in their way?
  • Embodiment: What do they look like? How do they speak? How do they hold themselves in the world?
  • Sub/Unconscious: What are the person’s habits of thinking, living that they are not aware of = automatisms? What is this person’s affective universe? What are a couple of contradictions that define this person?
  • Debriefing with participants: how does this exercise contrast with the previous one? What kind of relationship do you feel towards your character? (in this instance, the character animates the data).
Ethics and uses of falsification of research personae
  • Contextual
  • Dependent on questions asked, platforms used, discipline, etc.
  • What are the ethical limits in terms of interaction with platform and potentially other users?

4. Personas in Medias Res: Multiplicity vs. Fragmentation

This approach sees research personas being constructed by combining one or more of the perspectives described above, depending on what the research question of the project is. The assembled research personas are let out in the digital world and its interactions within a digital context are tracked. For example, the affective changes in the persona as it encounters information strategies are of interest.

For instance, crafting a fictional persona might benefit from elements of our self persona, for instance, browsing habits, media consumption habits, or values, psychological traits and triggers. The research persona could also benefit from the ready-to-connect persona: what kind of psycho-social category would the fictional persona be close to, whether they would accept it or not.

In the second part of the exercise, participants launch their persona online: refining their social media profiles, and then browsing, consulting and interacting with information. Rather than just “forcing” an issue to pop up by searching for it, this step of the exercise asks that participants spend some time developing browsing habits, to develop a context of use rather than just focus on hitting the “right” kind of content immediately. So for instance, rather than looking for “immigration” on Facebook (who uses Facebook search for keyword queries anyway?), imagine the kind of online news sources that your persona might consult. Would they perhaps like or share a news article on an immigration story? Say to their (fictional) spouse, because they have differing opinions on the topic and quarrelled about it a bit last night?

It is best at this point to continue working in groups to verbalize steps and thoughts, and keep a diary of this walkthrough.

In the diary, participants can record:
  • User actions as they correspond to the persona’s profile and browsing habits
  • Prompts from the platform in relation to actions: including recommendations, ads, and so on.
  • Triggers: prompts that the persona would respond to, both big (e.g. an important news) and more mundane (a refreshed newsfeed)
  • Events (transformative, worldview shift, allegiance): the moments of meaningful interaction, and transformation
  • affective state of mind, both at specific times and over a browsing session

The objective of the exercise is to understand how an actual user exists online and the moments when information capture strategies have an effect. The trick is to be aware that these effects do not necessarily rise to the level of consciousness. For instance, a browsing session might not feel like much, but the persona might experience a latent feeling of anxiety, depression and so on. Again, working in groups and verbalizing is useful to keep track of these under-the-radar changes. One question is whether these effects are cumulative over time.

By design, this exercise is long-term, and iterative. Screenshots, step by step note-taking and diary-writing are required. Free writing exercises (e.g. 3 minutes, non censored writing sessions) might be useful to elicit affective responses.

Frictions: from Human Proxy Persona to Machinic Proxy Personas
How to integrate backend connections research into this: understanding the capturing of users on the backend of platforms and the kinds of informational infrastructures that create potential mobilization of users (users as standing resources from an infrastructural perspective).

2. Proxying Personas


3. Art & Performance


Performance script: available here.

Performance video: available here.

Concept and goals for the performance

  1. Creative methods (like performance, scripting, metaphors, images) are useful formats to express, explain, feel and understand complicated analyses, difficult questions, and concepts with more than one answer; we want the play to manifest and contribute to the research findings;

  2. It can visualize findings of research in an embodied, affective, complex way in space and time and can be received as such;

  3. It is a powerful form to undo and redo logics that drive information disorder, recharging affective charges that have been used to manipulate users.

Creation process

1. Background and beginnings

We started from:

  • Research findings and key questions (compiled here)

  • The fictional characters and research personas developed during previous sessions.

2. World-making

  • Select characters, materials, stories, ideas to work with (from 1)

  • Articulate a play structure & situations that embodies concept and intended effects on the audience based on the selections made

  • Write the dialogue & stage directions (the affect bot was used for text generation, as were some basic improvisation prompts)

  • Script reading & revising

3. From play to performance

  • Assign roles to performers

  • Blocking & staging (led to script modifications due to certain staging restrictions -- for instance, some of the actions were described by the Narrator instead of being performed live onstage by the performers)

  • Rehearsals

  • Performance presentation.

Image: Play structure & roles assignment


  • Dieter M, Gerlitz C, Helmond A, Tkacz N, van der Vlist FN and Weltevrede E (2019, June 7). Multi-situated app studies: Methods and propositions. Social Media + Society, 5(2), 1–15. DOI: 10.1177/2056305119846486.


Topic revision: r5 - 16 Jul 2019, IoanaJucan
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