Study 1A: Self-Portrait


Our data is valuable, from advertisers who use it to market us products, to software and hardware companies that use it to adjust their products and encourage engagement. As a result, the many ‘free’ services we use are actually being paid for with our data, and the companies behind them have an interest in analyzing our actions to categorize us into personas.

In this study you’ll investigate the many digital portraits constantly being constructed about us – based on our social network actions, computer hardware, operating systems, writing, browser history and more. You'll then create a graphic ‘self-portrait’ that embodies your research on the topic.

Learning outcomes

  • Make cite of the digital profiles being created about us based on our online and computer-based activity
  • Understand design’s roles in facilitating this practice
  • Develop a critical position towards the parties monitoring your personal data


Week 1
T – Assign Study 1A
TH – Step 1 due
In class exercise: Group-Portrait

Week 2
T – Step 2 due
TH – Review research and progress for step 3

Week 3
T – Letterform Archive Field Trip

Week 4
T – Individual meetings
TH – Step 3 due / Final crit


Step 1

As an entry point into this topic we’ll collect different datasets that result from our activities and devices. Do the following procedures and collect information / personas that are being created about you:

Visit webkay on your laptop or phone and document its findings

Facebook Ads Preferences
Click into “Your information” > “Your categories” and document your ‘categories’*

Apply Magic Sauce
Predict your profile using your Twitter, Facebook, or a writing sample. Record your age and personality tendencies.

Google Chrome Image Cache
Copy "chrome://cache/" into your Google Chrome Address Bar. Then follow the instructions here on your cache page to convert your cache to images.

Firefox Image Cache
Use MZCacheView to extract images from your cache file.

Safari Image Cache
Use File Juicer to extract images from your cache file.

Click “Test Me”, then on your results page click “Show full results for fingerprinting”. Document your digital fingerprint.

Go into your “Settings” > “Privacy” and “Settings” > “Motion and Fitness” to see which applications have access to what information on your mobile device.

“Settings” > “Apps & notifications” select an app, and choose “Permissions” and “Body sensors” to see which applications have access to what information on your mobile device.

After you’ve collected this information analyze it. How do you feel about this data being tracked? Does it seem accurate? Which apps had access to personal data that surprised you?

After reflecting on your collected information, parse it through organization. Create three taxonomies by which to organize your information. For instance they could be:

  • Natural, Unnatural, Graphic
  • Intentional, Unintentional, and !?!?
  • etc.

Create a personal 'dossier' made up of your information and organized by taxonomy. This should include a text file that categorizes your information (you could also diagram it if you'd like) and a folder(s) of images. Be prepared to share your taxonomies and some of your information with the class, and talk about any insights you may have had. We'll be using this information for a group exercise so make sure it's accessible and organized.

Due Thursday January 18

Step 2

With Step 1 in mind, find 2 ‘self-portraits’ that are being created about you based on your data, and that you are interested in pursuing further.

Embedded in your phone there are many: TouchID and similar programs create a digital impression of your fingerprints and other biometric data, your photo album organizes your photos by person and location. Online there are more: services like Facebook and Google document your search terms, browser history, and networks of connection. Even within CCA they can be found – your print records with the Paper Clip print client, the Wi-Fi network that logs your connectivity.

Search for more beyond what we've already discussed. Try Googling your name and looking at the image results. Search the digital trash bins on the school computers. As you research collect screenshots, images, text, form-data, etc.

Create proposals for 2 possible ‘self-portraits’ and discuss them with the class. This discussion should be informal, and supported by a mix of data (i.e. your browser history, Google search results, your pictures metadata, etc.), technical knowledge, and visual references. Be prepared to present your ideas to the class and have critical reasons for your interest and a desire to comment on them.

Due Tuesday January 23

Step 3

Create a 16 page, half-letter, 'self-portrait' that juxtaposes your digital identity(ies) with the processes used to create them. This should be done via images and a 500 (minimum) word text that explains how your portrait was created and the actors involved. When constructing your 'self-portrait', consider the following methods:

Do you combine the multiple online personas into one form / series of forms? Or use data-visualization to create graphs that outline your persona? Can you use your data to find digital doppelgangers and create a group portrait with them?

Work to extract meaning around the data they’ve collected by using order, arrangement, pacing, juxtaposition, and other editorial tactics in a way that produces meaning.

Think about the unexpected ways in which your data is being used and have your project make those machinations more evident. This does not mean it needs to communicate hard data, or in a ‘clear’ Modernist style, but should make clear how your data is being analyzed.

Your booklet should have a cover, title page, colophon and bibliography (sources cited).

Due Thursday February 1


  • Personal data dossier organized by 3 taxonomies
  • Informal presentation on digital portraits
  • 16 page “Self-Portrait”