What is a digital persona?
Derrick de Kerckhove, University of Toronto and IN3/UOC
Cristina Miranda de Almeida, University of the Basque Country and IN3/UOC
Digital persona1 is a part of the individual identity that has been extended into the online
sphere to which corresponds a digital unconscious structuring a digitally divided self. It
has personal, social, institutional, legal, scientific and technological aspects that have to
be reconsidered to allow for new ways of understanding and managing identity.
However, the fragmentation of scientific analysis fails to explain what happens to the
digital personae in an interdisciplinary way. This is reflected by the current lack of
comprehensive framework, the tendency to develop fragmentary management tools and
gaps in legal frameworks. In this context society, experts, institutions and groups are still
in a fragile unconscious, or pre-conscious phase, regarding the opportunities and
problems associated with the management of digital persona. The objective of this article
is to offer a first set of comprehensive features that shape the personal and social sense of
digital selfhood and identity and provoke a reflection regarding the future personal, social
and institutional management of our digital personae. This on-going research aims at
contributing to define the digital persona and to develop models and typologies of digital
personhood that are still being developed.
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In the Internet age, the creation of a digital layer over our personal identity produced a
strong impact in the very definition of what is a person and his/her identity, be it personal
or collective. As a consequence, identity has been extended as a ‘digital persona’ (Clark
1994), to which corresponds a ‘digital unconscious’ (de Kerckhove 2012) structuring a
‘digitally divided self’ (Quartiroli 2011).
This digital persona is an essential part of the individual identity. It involves personal,
social, institutional, legal, scientific and technological aspects. However, the
fragmentation of scientific analysis fails to explain what happens to the digital personae
in an interdisciplinary way. This is mirrored in the current lack of comprehensive
framework, in the tendency to develop fragmentary management tools and in the gaps in
legal frameworks. Such aspects should be fully reconsidered to allow for new ways of
defining, understanding and managing identity.
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In this context society, experts, institutions and groups are still in a fragile unconscious,
or pre-conscious phase, regarding the nature of the digital persona; ethical and mature
management of its features (from legal to behaviour features, from political visions to
technological ethics); and the need to develop more comprehensive, ethical and friendly
The objective of this article is to offer a first comprehensive framework of the features
that shape the personal and social sense of digital selfhood and identity and to provoke a
reflection regarding the future personal, social and institutional management of our
This on-going research aims at contributing to define the digital persona and to develop
models and typologies of digital personhood. The method combines different approaches
such as Action Theory, Digital Constructivism and Techno-psychology to develop a
theoretical model based on a series of case studies selected for different real-life
problems around digital identity. In each problem-based case study a cluster of four fields
converge: social sciences (including Social Psychology, Anthropology, Sociology, Media
Studies, Law); Technology (System Engineering); Data Representation (Art, Data
Design) and Complexity (Science of Networks, Physics). Each one of these fields
represents an area of agency to which the different elements of action upon digital
identity are explored. This article focuses on a smaller part of the research that is already
defined: the identification of the 4 areas of agency in Digital Persona that overlap in the
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form of problem-based clusters to be taken into consideration in each paradigm case
The identification of these four areas of agency is already a main contribution of this
phase of the research process without which the rest of objectives cannot be developed.
Identity is a loose concept applied to different and occasionally contradictory domains. It
bears psychological as well as legal and social definitions. According to Irma Van der
Ploeg (2010) ‘identity is considered a key concept in contemporary social theory and in
conceptualisations of the relation between technology and society’ (Van der Ploeg 2008).
The social use of digital communication media is a formatting system that is deeply
impacting our inherited Cartesian sense of being separated as individuals and is
transforming our identity from a private individuality into networked (Castells 1996) and
connected (de Kerckhove 1997) communities that share collective intelligence (Levy
1997) and connected intelligence (de Kerckhove 1997), a digitally divided self (Quartiroli
2011) and a liquid self2 (Bauman 2004). In digital culture identity emerges as an
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Figure 1: Four areas of agency that
overlap in case studies:
3- Art and data design
4-Science of networks and
interactive social process of negotiation3 (Jenkins 2006) between multiple identities4
(Turkle 1995). In order to operate in the digital sphere we develop a digital persona5
(Clark 1994), as a necessary digital extension of ourselves that expands our ‘digital
identity’6 and our digital subject7 (Cameron 2005). To this extension of ourselves a digital
unconscious can be attributed, in that available data tracked about us are continually
increasing. Digital culture has added several new layers to how people define themselves
and others. Roger Clarke understands the digital persona as a necessary model to define
the individual in the networked society:
The digital persona is a model of the individual established through the collection,
storage and analysis of data about that person. It is a very useful and even
necessary concept for developing an understanding of the behaviour of the new,
networked world. (Clarke 1994)
D. Greenwood distinguishes between the concepts of person and persona/e. For this
author each person has only one ‘core identity’ but more than one ‘persona’. The latter
includes different clusters of roles, relationships, attributes and identifiers for each
An analysis of law, practice and logic strongly suggest each person has a ‘Core
Identity’ for which there is one-per-person, and each person has more than one
‘Personae’, including clusters of particular roles and relationships and associated
attributes and identifiers for each Personae. A ‘Work’ Personae, for example,
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would include in my case nearly 100 different log-in accounts on a wide variety of
systems, applications, services, networks, etc. I have perhaps 10 distinct ‘Roles’,
each with several identifiers and attributes, accounts and relationships. Just today
I received my new MIT ID Card, complete with a number. I was ‘provisioned’
into my different computer systems, physical access systems and my digital
footprint for these Personae is growing by the hour. My Personae as ‘Architect’ of
identity trust frameworks includes roles as consultant to the insurance industry, a
large city, a large department of defence agency, a large non-profit, a think-tank
and so on. My Personae as a yoga practitioner again yields many roles within the
related communities (from music, to organizer, to technology provider, to student,
teacher and many others) and many, many online accounts, and particular sub-
identities. Yet… I have but a single Core Identity. There is, in the end, just one
me. (Greenwood 2014)8
Revealing the presence of the unconscious has been one of the greatest breakthroughs of
psychology in the twentieth century. While Freud was focusing on the functions and
occasional manifestations of the private unconscious, Jung was exploring what he
revealed as the collective unconscious. Taking into account their contributions we
wonder what has become of the unconscious now that new forms of ‘identity’ appear
with the incorporation of the digital layer that mediates between the social and the
personal domains as a part of the constitution of a ‘digital persona’.
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The impact of the digital on identity is positive only when it is equilibrated with other
fields because any kind of identity management and personal representation is a complex
field cluster, a mosaic of fragmented definitions,9 in which the body is an interface but
not the limit of private identity. Nevertheless, nowadays, the centrality of technology in
the building and rebuilding process of human identity in advanced societies threatens this
balance and exposes human identity to new problems. The problematic situation starts
with how people’s identity is being embedded in devices, as ‘digital personal
identifications’ and ‘digital authentications’ and continues with self-tracking systems and
The term ‘digital identity’ is also defined as ‘a digital representation of a set of claims
made by one party about itself or another data subject’.10 This definition opens the door to
a series of problems. Some of these problems regarding Digital-Augmented Identity
emerge when ICT-based agencies, on their own and not informed by a broader
perspective,11 determine who people are. In this context strategies and actions like digital
profiling, data visualizations, monitoring, data mining profiling, tracking and geo-
localization shrink our identities into reductive categorizations and polar oppositions that
hinder the full possibility of identity self-management. On the polar axis between a
technocratic attitude (technology is neutral regarding values) and a social-based way of
looking at technology (Dupuy n.d.), the dominance of technology is higher. Technology-
mediated identities are controlled and constructed according to technological parameters
that frequently neglect historical and social claims about fluidity, diversity, multiplicity,
pluralism, cultural diversity and multi-culturality. Although a few different initiatives to
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solve some of these problems have appeared like Digital Mirror, The Digital You,12 and
the Real You, and Google Alerts,13 among others, in this movement between extremes
society’s behaviour shows these problematic features:
•Lack of awareness about digital personae’s existence, characteristics, problems
•Lack of awareness regarding digital personae’s correct ethical management
•Technological illiteracy, which constitutes a kind of pre-consciousness regarding
•Accessibility discrimination: Part of the information about individuals belongs at
an un-accessible part to Internet of which people are unconscious
•Lack of a European policy. Fragmented treatment of the problem
•Lack of full legal protection
•Stereotyping profiling and identity definition.
Research question and hypothesis
The research question we are addressing regards what elements constitute the digital
personae in order to develop a typology of different kinds of action upon digital identity
that reflects its structure in the future. The research question asks which are the key fields
that are present in actions upon a digital persona so as to propose a complex framework
to understand it and manage it. The hypothesis is that action upon digital personae can be
understood as a form of organized collective action according to the following definition:
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Organized collective action is the result of a social action (or collective challenge)
carried out by the set of formal and informal interactions established between (1) a
plurality of individuals, collectives and organized groups (who share, to a greater or
lesser extent, a sense of belonging or collective identity among themselves) and (2)
other social and political actors with which they come into conflict. This conflict is
triggered by the appropriation (of), participation (in), and transformation of relations
of power to achieve social goals, and above all, through the mobilization of certain
sectors of society. (Tejerina 2010)
Given the different forms in which action upon identity have historically developed it is
not possible to present any essential definition. In each age there have been a variety of
ways, objectives, motivations and concerns to develop action upon identity. When
collective action forms groups it is crucial to understand how these collective entities are
shaped by means of discussions, negotiation and re-negotiation processes and not take
their existence for granted.
Actions upon digital personae imply intentional decisions and interaction structures
inside a system of opportunities and restrictions. This article focuses on identifying the
key fields of agency that are present in the construction of digital persona to propose a
framework to understand it and manage it well.
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After these fields are identified, in a future phase, we will introduce Theories of
Collective Action. These are usually applied to understand different kinds of collective
actions – for instance they are used to understand the action of ecologist, feminist or
pacifist movements, among others – and will be pertinent to understand, in a very
structured way, the interaction between the main dimensions, agents, resources, contexts
and strategies of action upon digital persona after a little conceptual translation or
•To analyse how these four agents act upon the digital personae
•To construct a theoretical, practical, institutional and technological framework to
empower people to manage their digital personae in a proper way
•To empower personae in their action practices upon digital personae to avoid
identity abuse and lack of skills in identity management
•To enable synchronization of aims,
motivations, and interactions around
identity problems and opportunities so
that they find resonance (or not) in an
environment of limited resources and
changing opportunities in which there
are collaborators and opponents with
whom it is necessary to dialogue.
The method is a combination of Action Theory with other two epistemological qualitative
approaches to enquiry such as Digital Constructivism, and Techno-psychology, to
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Figure 2: Agents in case studies.
develop a theoretical model based on a series of case studies selected for different real-
life problems around digital identity. In each problem-based case study a cluster of four
fields converge: social sciences (including Social Psychology, Anthropology, Sociology,
Media Studies, Law); Technology (System Engineering); Data Representation (Art, Data
Design) and Complexity (Science of Networks, Physics). Each one of these fields
represents an area of agency to which the different elements of action upon digital
identity are explored.
The research will discriminate four
situations, or areas of power, in which
opportunities and problems emerge.
All the situations are concomitantly
active and interconnected in the
formation of our digital identities; in
each one of these all the agents are
active. However, what determines the
difference among them is given by
the centrality and dominance of one agent
over other. A selection of case studies
will be analysed. The selection will be based on which agent (who) defines and manages
identity. These four areas or situations of power constitute four problem-areas and will be
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Figure 3: Interconnected research dimensions.
the conductive thread that structures this research proposal, from research questions to
Based on this approach the focus of this research is placed on four kinds of agents:
1. Personal agents: those individuals, groups, companies and institutions that define
themselves and self-manage their own identity, express or construct their online
persona (e.g. Identity sharing in social networks in a conscious or unconscious
2. Technological agents: at the sphere of software design, the agents that define and
manage other individuals’, groups’, institutions’ identities, in a conscious or
unconscious way; Technological agents that define and manage other
individuals’, groups’, institutions’ identities, in a conscious or unconscious way
(e.g. Stereotyped profiling).
3. Institutional and legal agents: those who make the rules that limit action and
power on digital personae; prepare key policies, profit of digital identity and raw
political elements of the definition, construction, redefinition, use, sharing,
abusing and empowerment process regarding digital persona. Institutions that
define and manage other individuals’, groups’, institutions’ identities, in a
conscious or unconscious way (e.g. unethical institutional data-mining).
4. Civic agents: individuals, informal social groups, interest groups and business
stakeholders that interact with, define, manage, re-distribute, profit from or abuse
of others’ digital persona in a conscious or unconscious way (e.g. crowdsourcing;
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redistributing and sharing identity in social networks; use of profiling to sell
goods; spy-waring, fishing, unethical data-mining).
Findings and discussion
In each one of these four areas of agency there are particular characteristics regarding
identity building, problems and opportunities for change. In order to change the situation,
specific analysis and different solutions must be developed and a trans-disciplinary
approach is required. These four areas of power and agency are the core that operates in
all case studies of digital identity. So, each one of the parts of this on-going project will
always make reference to these four areas and, in so doing, to the dominant agent that
corresponds to each area.
Each area can be analysed in a separate way and the same aspects compared, as for each
one of the areas the problems are different. In each problem-area of agency some
disciplines and fields have more centrality than others. In this sense this proposal parts
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from each one of the problem areas to develop research objectives, opportunities of
change and impact, as the impact will be discriminated also in relation to fields.
The principles that used to guide societies’ actions in relation to identity are changing.
The proposal that four areas of agency should be taken into consideration in relation to
digital identity constitutes a different perspective. On the one hand, the integration of
these four areas of agency dialogues with the previous state-of-art developments but, on
the other hand, it jumps towards an integrative inclusive perspective that is not present to
such an extent in previous achievements.
The integration of these four areas of agency is a contribution that is treated in a different
way in researches mentioned previously. One of the best references for Digital Persona is
von der Ploeg’s project DigIDeas Social and Ethical Aspects of Digital Identities.
Towards a Value Sensitive Identity Management. The project Digital Persona is parallel
to the later in relation to methodology and aims: both are trans-disciplinary and centred
on problems that converge in paradigmatic case studies. The ‘problem’ point of view
seems to be one of the best ways to deal with complex issues, particularly as it enables
discrimination of the particular problems related to each area of agency and opens more
possibilities to recommendations to spot opportunities and to find solutions to the
problems and obstacles to concrete agents.
Although multiple tools and projects to manage digital personae are being developed,
mostly from the private sector, they are still partial solutions, coming mostly from the
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point of view of ICT (platforms for data representation without inputs from other
disciplines) and fail to address and integrate all the layers of the problem. How all the
layers of digital personae are simultaneously woven in a complex situation remains
obscure. As a result, the fragmented parts of identity are left in a no-man’s-land, exposed
to different kinds of abuse or appropriation. Left as it is, this no man’s land is even more
potentially problematic and relevant given the fact that digital identity management
promises to be an all-pervading ‘unifying component’ in the emerging ICT panorama,
alongside the concomitant increase in the centrality of technology on identity and the
emergence of other forms of bias (Rundle et al. 2007).
The broad perspective proposed by the comprehensive treatment of digital personae
project, which takes into consideration personal, technological, civic, legal and
institutional aspects, is not included in projects like Digital Mirror, The Digital You, and
the Real You and Google Alerts from the point of view of the individual.
Beyond personal aspects and covering all the problems that were highlighted, what is
missing is a European framework –a point of reference at the EU level with regards
digital personae that includes identification, authentication, legal and ethics subjective
identity management – that allows for dealing with all digital personae layers; integrates
disciplines beyond ICT; enjoys the necessary tools to manage identity issues; and is
sensitive to possible biases.
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This framework should be based on an ethical and respectful understanding of data
democracy, where channels and control mechanisms exist for restricting the abusive
behaviours. On the one hand, these channels and mechanisms should involve all the
sectors implied in identity management for the development of different solutions to
problems affecting each sector. On the other hand, members of society should be
empowered to manage their digital personae and protect their privacy and reputation.
Derrick de Kerckhove and Cristina Miranda de Almeida acknowledge support for this
Bauman, Zygmunt (2004), Identity, Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
Cameron, Kim (2005), ‘The laws of identity’, Microsoft Software Development Network,
http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/ms996456. Accessed 20 November 2012.
Castells, Manuel (1996), The Rise of the Network Society, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.
Clarke, Roger (1994), ‘The digital persona and its application to data surveillance’, The
Information Society, http://www.rogerclarke.com/DV/DigPersona.html#DP . Accessed
21 February 2014.
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de Kerckhove, Derrick (2012), ‘Seminars on digital unconscious’,
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de Kerckhove, Derrick (ed.) (1988), The Alphabet and the Brain: The Lateralization of
Writing, Berlin and New York: Springer-Verlag.
____ (1997), Connected Intelligence, Toronto: Somerville House Books.
____ (1998), Connected Intelligence: The Arrival of the Web Society, London: Kogan
____ (2001), The Architecture of Intelligence, Basel and Boston: The IT Revolution in
Architecture and Birkhauser.
Dupuy, Jean Pierre (n.d.), ‘Do we shape technologies, or do they shape us?’,
Accessed 21 January 2014.
Greenwood, Daniel (2014), ‘Online Identity-On the Line’, http://civics.com/identity/.
Accessed 21 January 2014.
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Jenkins, Henry (2003), Social Identity, London: Routledge.
____ (2006), Convergence Culture, New York: New York University Press.
Levy, Pierre (1997), Collective Intelligence, New York and London: Plenium Trade.
Quartiroli, Ivo (2011), The Digitally Divided Self: Relinquishing our Awareness to the
Internet, Milan: Sillens Books.
Rundle, Mary (ed.); Blakley, Bob; Broberg, Jeff; Nadalin, Anthony; Olds, Dale;
Guimarães, Marcelo and Paul Trevithick (2007), ‘At a crossroads: “Personhood” and
digital identity in the information society’, http://www.egov.vic.gov.au/trends-and-
information-society-in-word-format-532kb-.html. Accessed 20 January 2013.
Tejerina, Benjamin (2010), La Sociedad Imaginada/The Imagined Society, Madrid:
Turkle, Sherry (1995), Life on the Screen. Identity on the Age of Internet, New York:
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van der Ploeg, Irma (2008), ‘Social and ethical aspects of digital identities. Towards a
value sensitive identity management’, DigIDeas, http://www.digideas.nl/. Accessed 12
____ (2011), ‘Le corps biométrique : différences corporelles, normes intégrées et
classifications automatisées’/ ‘The biometric body: On bodily differences, built-in norms,
and automated classifications’, in A. Ceyhan and P. Piazza (eds), L’identification
biométrique: Champs, acteurs, enjeux et controverses/Biometric Identification: Issues
and Controversies, Paris: Éditions de la Maison des Sciences de l’Homme., p. 229-346.
____ (2012), ‘The body as data in the age of information’, in K. Ball, K. D. Haggerty and
D. Lyon (eds), The Routledge Handbook of Surveillance Studies, London and New
York: Routledge, pp. 176–84.
Zureik, Elia (ed.) (2010), Surveillance, Privacy, and the Globalization of Personal
Information: International Comparisons, Ithaca, NY: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
Derrick de Kerckhove
Address: 231 Lakeport Road, RR3 Colborne, Ontario K0K1S0, Canada
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1 This text is part of a project that has been presented to an ERC Advanced Grant call, by Derrick de
Kerckhove. The project Digital Persona is being developed in collaboration with Cristina Miranda
de Almeida and Matteo Ciastellardi in the Research Programme Digital Culture, IN3/UOC,
2 Bauman proposes the fluidity of an infinitely negotiable identity.
3 Richard Jenkins understands identity as an interactive social process of negotiation between the
individual and society.
4 Turkle (1995: 178) states that, ‘the Internet is another element of computer culture that has
contributed to thinking about identity as multiplicity. On it, people are able to build a self by
cycling through many selves’.
5 Roger Clark sees that a kind of parallel identity takes shape as ‘digital persona’, a model of the
individual established through the collection, storage and analysis of data about that person.
6 Digital identity is a set of claims made by one digital subject about itself or another digital subject.
A claim could just convey an identifier – for example, a number is 490–525, or a subject’s
Windows name; or might assert that a subject knows and should be able to demonstrate a key; or
convey personally identifying information – name, address, date of birth and citizenship; or propose
that a subject is part of a certain group (age, gender).
7 A ‘digital subject’ is ‘a person or thing represented or existing in the digital realm which is being
described or dealt with’. According to this author the digital sphere includes many ‘subjects’ other
than humans, including devices and computers. This author centres digital identity in the process of
truthful communication between subjects via digital devices, http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-
us/library/ms996456, Accessed 22 February 2013.
8 Dazza Greenwood is a lecturer and research scientist at the MIT Media Lab, focusing on research
projects on big data, identity federation and trust frameworks and is developing ‘Computational
Legal Science’ as a sub-discipline of computational social science. For more information see
9 In Europe Homeland Security, biometric identification and personal detection ethics; Steering
Committee on Bioethics at the Council of Europe (HIDE) is currently addressing the dimensions of
digital identities and identity management.
10 Identity Gang’s Lexicon, http://identitygang.org/moin.cgi/Digital_Identity, accessed 14
11 This includes not only social sciences and humanities, but also a bottom-up self-definition
12 The Digital You often behaves differently from the real you. More often than not, this behaviour
is unflattering and potentially harmful, to others or to our own reputation. In one study, subjects had
to contact an unknown person to split with them a sum of money. When the contact was by
handwritten note, the test subjects lied 69 per cent of the time about the total sum of money to be
split. This increased to 92 per cent when the communication was by e-mail. This is a particularly
striking example. Often the differences of behaviour when we are online are quite subtle and even
13 Google Alerts are email updates of the latest relevant Google results (web, social platform, news)
based on a choice of query or topic that is fed onto such as a brand, product or organization name or