Online Persona as Hybrid-Object: Tracing the Problems and Possibilities of Persona in the Short Film Noah

Neil James Henderson

Abstract


Introduction 

The short film Noah (2013) depicts the contemporary story of an adolescent relationship breakdown and its aftermath. The film tells the story by showing events entirely as they unfold on the computer screen of Noah, the film’s teenaged protagonist. All of the characters, including Noah, appear on film solely via technological mediation.

Although it is a fictional representation, Noah has garnered a lot of acclaim within an online public for the authenticity and realism of its portrayal of computer-mediated life (Berkowitz; Hornyak; Knibbs; Warren). Judging by the tenor of a lot of this commentary, the film has keyed in to a larger cultural anxiety around issues of communication and relationships online. Many reviewers and interested commentators have expressed concern at how closely Noah’s distracted, frenetic and problematic multitasking resembles their own computer usage (Beggs; Berkowitz; Trumbore). They frequently express the belief that it was this kind of behaviour that led to the relationship breakdown depicted in the film, as Noah proves to be “a lot better at opening tabs than at honest communication” (Knibbs para. 2).

I believe that the cultural resonance of the film stems from the way in which the film is an implicit attempt to assess the nature of contemporary online persona. By understanding online persona as a particular kind of “hybrid object” or “quasi-object”—a combination of both human and technological creation (Latour We Have)—the sense of the overall problems, as well as the potential, of online persona as it currently exists, is traceable through the interactions depicted within the film. By understanding social relationships as constituted through dynamic interaction (Schutz), I understand the drama of Noah to stem principally from a tension in the operation of online persona between a) the technological automation of presentation that forms a core part of the nature of contemporary online persona, and b) the need for interaction in effective relationship development. However, any attempt to blame this tension on an inherent tendency in technology is itself problematised by the film’s presentation of an alternative type of online persona, in a Chatroulette conversation depicted in the film’s second half.

Persona and Performance, Mediation and Delegation

Marshall (“Persona Studies” 163) describes persona as “a new social construction of identity and public display.” This new type of social construction has become increasingly common due to a combination of “changes in work, transformation of our forms of social connection and networking via new technologies, and consequent new affective clusters and micropublics” (Marshall “Persona Studies” 166). New forms of “presentational” media play a key role in the construction of persona by providing the resources through which identity is “performed, produced and exhibited by the individual or other collectives” (Marshall “Persona Studies” 160).

In this formulation of persona, it is not clear how performance and presentation interlink with the related concepts of production and exhibition. Marshall’s concept of “intercommunication” suggests a classificatory scheme for these multiple registers of media and communication that are possible in the contemporary media environment. However, Marshall’s primary focus has so far been on the relationship between existing mediated communication forms, and their historical transformation (Marshall “Intercommunication”). Marshall has not as yet made clear the theoretical link between performance, presentation, production and exhibition. Actor-Network Theory (ANT) can provide this theoretical link, and a way of understanding persona as it operates in an online context: as online persona.

In ANT, everything that exists is an object. Objects are performative actors—the associations between objects produce the identity of objects and the way they perform. The performative actions of objects, equally, produce the nature of the associations between them (Latour Reassembling). Neither objects nor associations have a prior existence outside of their relationship to each other (Law).

For Latour, the semiotic distinction between “human” and “non-human” is itself an outcome of the performances of objects and their associations. There are also objects, which Latour calls “quasi-objects” or “hybrids,” that do not fit neatly on one side of the human/non-human divide or the other (Latour We Have). Online persona is an example of such a hybrid or quasi-object: it is a combination of both human creation and technological mediation.

Two concepts formulated by Latour provide some qualitative detail about the nature of the operation of Actor-Networks. Firstly, Latour emphasises that actors are also “mediators.” This name emphasises that when an actor acts to create a connection between two or more other objects, it actively transforms the way that objects encounter the performance of other objects (Latour Reassembling). This notion of mediation resembles Hassan’s definition of “media” as an active agent of transferral (Hassan). But Latour emphasises that all objects, not just communication technologies, act as mediators. Secondly, Latour describes how an actor can take on the actions originally performed by another actor. He refers to this process as “delegation.” Delegation, especially delegation of human action to a technological delegate, can render action more efficient in two ways. It can reduce the effort needed for action, causing “the transformation of a major effort into a minor one.” It can also reduce the time needed to exert effort in performing an action: the effort need not be ongoing, but can be “concentrated at the time of installation” (Latour “Masses” 229-31).

Online persona, in the terminology of ANT, is a constructed, performative presentation of identity. It is constituted through a combination of human action, ongoing mediation of present human action, and the automation, through technological delegation, of previous actions. The action of the film Noah is driven by the changes in expected and actual interaction that these various aspects of persona encourage.

The Problems and Potential of Online Persona

By relaying the action entirely via a computer screen, the film Noah is itself a testament to how encounters with others solely via technological mediation can be genuinely meaningful. Relaying the action in this way is in fact creatively productive, providing new ways of communicating details about characters and relationships through the layout of the screen. For instance, the film introduces the character of Amy, Noah’s girlfriend, and establishes her importance to Noah through her visual presence as part of a photo on his desktop background at the start of the film. The film later communicates the end of the relationship when the computer boots up again, but this time with Amy’s photo notably absent from the background.

However, the film deviates from a “pure” representation of a computer screen in a number of ways. Most notably, the camera frame is not static, and moves around the screen in order to give the viewer the sense that the camera is simulating Noah’s eye focus. According to the directors, the camera needed to show viewers where the focus of the action was as the story progressed. Without this indication of where to focus, it was hard to keep viewers engaged and interested in the story (Paulas).

Within the story of the film itself, the sense of drama surrounding Noah’s actions similarly stem from the exploration of the various aspects of what it is and is not possible to achieve in the performance of persona – both the positive and the negative consequences. At the start of the film, Noah engages in a Skype conversation with his girlfriend Amy. While Noah is indeed “approximating being present” (Berkowitz para. 3) for the initial part of this conversation, once Noah hears an implication that Amy may want to break up with him, the audience sees his eye movements darting between Amy’s visible face in Skype and Amy’s Facebook profile, and nowhere else.

It would be a mistake to think that this double focus means Noah is not fully engaging with Amy. Rather, he is engaging with two dimensions of Amy’s available persona: her Facebook profile, and her Skype presence. Noah is fully focusing on Amy at this point of the film, but the unitary persona he experiences as “Amy” is constructed from multiple media channels—one dynamic and real-time, the other comparatively stable and static. Noah’s experience of Amy is multiplexed, a unitary experience constructed from multiple channels of communication. This may actually enhance Noah’s affective involvement with Amy.

It is true that at the very start of the Skype call, Noah is focusing on several unrelated activities, not just on Amy. The available technological mediators enable this division of attention. But more than that, the available technological mediators also assume in their functioning that the user’s attention can be and should be divided. Thus some of the distractions Noah experiences at this time are of his own making (e.g. the simple game he plays in a browser window), while others are to some degree configured by the available opportunity to divide one’s attention, and the assumption of others that the user will do so. One of the distractions faced by Noah comes in the form of repeated requests from his friend “Kanye East” to play the game Call of Duty. How socially obligated is Noah to respond to these requests as promptly as possible, regardless of what other important things (that his friend doesn’t know about) he may be doing?

Unfortunately, and for reasons which the audience never learns, the Skype call terminates abruptly before Noah can fully articulate his concerns to Amy. With a keen eye, the audience can see that the image of Amy froze not long after Noah started talking to her in earnest. She did indeed appear to be having problems with her Skype, as her later text message suggested. But there’s no indication why Amy decided, as described in the same text message, to postpone the conversation after the Skype call failed.

This is a fairly obvious example of the relatively common situation in which one actor unexpectedly refuses to co-operate with the purposes of another (Callon). Noah’s uncertainty at how to address this non-cooperation leads to the penultimate act of the film when he logs in to Amy’s Facebook account. In order to fully consider the ethical issues involved, a performative understanding of the self and of relationships is insufficient. Phenomenological understandings of the self and social relationships are more suited to ethical considerations.

Online Persona and Social Relationships

In the “phenomenological sociology” of Alfred Schutz, consciousness is inescapably temporal, constantly undergoing slight modification by the very process of progressing through time. The constitution of a social relationship, for Schutz, occurs when two (and only two) individuals share a community of space and time, simultaneously experiencing the same external phenomena. More importantly, it also requires that these two individuals have an ongoing, mutual and simultaneous awareness of each other’s progress and development through time. Finally, it requires that the individuals be mutually aware of the very fact that they are aware of each other in this ongoing, mutual and simultaneous way (Schutz).

Schutz refers to this ideal-typical relationship state as the “We-relationship,” and the communal experience that constitutes it as “growing older together.” The ongoing awareness of constantly generated new information about the other is what constitutes a social relationship, according to Schutz. Accordingly, a lack of such information exchange will lead to a weaker social bond. In situations where direct interaction does not occur, Schutz claimed that individuals would construct their knowledge of the other through “typification”: pre-learned schemas of identity of greater or lesser generality, affixed to the other based on whatever limited information may be available.

In the film, when Amy is no longer available via Skype, an aspect of her persona is still available for interrogation. After the failed Skype call, Noah repeatedly refreshes Amy’s Facebook profile, almost obsessively checking her relationship status to see if it has changed from reading “in a relationship.” In the process he discovers that, not long after their aborted Skype conversation, Amy has changed her profile picture—from one that had an image of the two of them together, to one that contains an image of Amy only. He also in the process discovers that someone he does not know named “Dylan Ramshaw” has commented on all of Amy’s current and previous profile pictures. Dylan’s Facebook profile proves resistant to interrogation—Noah’s repeated, frustrated attempts to click on Dylan’s profile picture to bring up more detail yields no results. In the absence of an aspect of persona that undergoes constant temporal change, any new information attained—a profile picture changed, a not-previously noticed regular commenter discovered—seems to gain heightened significance in defining not just the current relationship status with another, but the trajectory which that relationship is taking. The “typification” that Noah constructs of Amy is that of a guilty, cheating girlfriend.

The penultimate act of the film occurs when Noah chooses to log in to Amy’s Facebook account using her password (which he knows), “just to check for sketchy shit,” or so he initially claims to Kanye East.  His suspicions appear to be confirmed when he discovers that private exchanges between Amy and Dylan which indicate that they had been meeting together without Noah’s knowledge. The suggestion to covertly read Amy’s private Facebook messages comes originally from Kanye East, when he asks Noah “have you lurked [covertly read] her texts or anything?” Noah’s response strongly suggests the normative uncertainty that the teenaged protagonist feels at the idea; his initial response to Kanye East reads “is that the thing to do now?” The operation of Facebook in this instance has two, somewhat contradictory, delegated tasks: let others feel connected to Amy and what she’s doing, but also protect Amy’s privacy. The success of the second goal interferes with Noah’s desire to achieve the first. And so he violates her privacy.

The times that Noah’s mouse hovers and circles around a button that would send a message from Amy’s account or update Amy’s Facebook profile are probably the film’s most cringe-inducing moments. Ultimately Noah decides to update Amy’s relationship status to single. The feedback he receives to Amy’s account immediately afterwards seems to confirm his suspicions that this was what was going to happen anyway: one friend of Amy’s says “finally” in a private message, and the suspicious “Dylan” offers up a shoulder to cry on. Apparently believing that this reflects the reality of their relationship, Noah leaves the status on Amy’s Facebook profile as “single.”

The tragedy of the film is that Noah’s assumptions were quite incorrect. Rather than reflecting their updated relationship status, the change revealed to Amy that he had violated her privacy. Dylan’s supposedly over-familiar messages were perfectly acceptable on the basis that Dylan was not actually heterosexual (and therefore a threat to Noah’s role as boyfriend), but gay.

The Role of Technology: “It’s Complicated”

One way to interpret the film would be to blame Noah’s issues on technology per se. This is far too easy. Rather, the film suggests that Facebook was to some degree responsible for Noah’s relationship issues and the problematic way in which he tried to address them. In the second half of the film, Noah engages in a very different form of online interaction via the communication service known as Chatroulette. This interaction stands in sharp contrast to the interactions that occurred via Facebook.

Chatroulette is a video service that pairs strangers around the globe for a chat session. In the film, Noah experiences a fairly meaningful moment on Chatroulette with an unnamed girl on the service, who dismisses Facebook as “weird and creepy”. The sheer normative power of Facebook comes across when Noah initially refuses to believe the unnamed Chatroulette girl when she says she does not have a Facebook profile. She suggests, somewhat ironically, that the only way to have a real, honest conversation with someone is “with a stranger, in the middle of the night”, as just occurred on Chatroulette.

Besides the explicit comparison between Facebook and Chatroulette in the dialogue, this scene also provides an implicit comparison between online persona as it is found on Facebook and as it is found on Chatroulette. The style of interaction on each service is starkly different. On Facebook, users largely present themselves and perform to a “micro-public” of their “friends.” They largely engage in static self-presentations, often “interacting” only through interrogating the largely static self-presentations of others. On Chatroulette, users interact with strangers chosen randomly by an algorithm. Users predominantly engage in dialogue one-on-one, and interaction tends to be a mutual, dynamic affair, much like “real life” conversation.

Yet while the “real-time” dialogue possible on Chatroulette may seem more conducive to facilitating Schutz’ idea of “growing older together,” the service also has its issues. The randomness of connection with others is problematic, as the film frankly acknowledges in the uncensored shots of frontal male nudity that Noah experiences in his search for a chat partner. Also, the problematic lack of a permanent means of staying in contact with each other is illustrated by a further tragic moment in the film when the session with the unnamed girl ends, with Noah having no means of ever being able to find her again.

Conclusion

It is tempting to dismiss the problems that Noah encounters while interacting via mediated communication with the exhortation to “just go out and live [… ] life in the real world” (Trumbore para. 4), but this is also over-simplistic. Rather, what we can take away from the film is that there are trade-offs to be had in the technological mediation of self-presentation and communication. The questions that we need to address are: what prompts the choice of one form of technological mediation over another? And what are the consequences of this choice? Contemporary persona, as conceived by David Marshall, is motivated by the commodification of the self, and by increased importance of affect in relationships (Marshall “Persona Studies”). In the realm of Facebook, the commodification of the self has to some degree flattened the available interactivity of the online self, in favour of what the unnamed Chatroulette girl derogatorily refers to as “a popularity contest.”

The short film Noah is to some degree a cultural critique of dominant trends in contemporary online persona, notably of the “commodification of the self” instantiated on Facebook. By conceiving of online persona in the terms of ANT outlined here, it becomes possible to envision alternatives to this dominant form of persona, including a concept of persona as commodification. Further, it is possible to do this in a way that avoids the trap of blaming technology for all problems, and that recognises both the advantages and disadvantages of different ways of constructing online persona. The analysis of Noah presented here can therefore provide a guide for more sophisticated and systematic examinations of the hybrid-object “online persona.”

References

Beggs, Scott. “Short Film: The Very Cool ‘Noah’ Plays Out Madly on a Teenager’s Computer Screen.” Film School Rejects 11 Sep. 2013. 3 Mar. 2014.

Callon, M. “Some Elements of a Sociology of Translation: Domestication of the Scallops and the Fishermen of St Brieuc Bay. Power, Action and Belief: A New Sociology of Knowledge? Ed. John Law. London, UK: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986. 196–223.

Berkowitz, Joe. “You Need to See This 17-Minute Film Set Entirely on a Teen’s Computer Screen.” Fast Company 10 Sep. 2013. 1 Mar. 2014.

Hassan, Robert. Media, Politics and the Network Society. Maidenhead: Open University Press, 2004.

Hornyak, Tim. “Short Film ‘Noah’ Will Make You Think Twice about Facebook—CNET.” CNET 19 Sep. 2013. 2 Mar. 2014.

Knibbs, Kate. “‘Have You Lurked Her Texts?’: How the Directors of ‘Noah’ Captured the Pain of Facebook-Era Dating.” Digital Trends 14 Sep. 2013. 9 Feb. 2014.

Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. Oxford University Press, 2005.

Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Latour, Bruno. “Where Are the Missing Masses? The Sociology of a Few Mundane Artifacts.” Shaping Technology/Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change. Ed. Wiebe E. Bijker and John Law. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992. 225–58.

Law, John. “After ANT: Complexity, Naming and Topology.” Actor-Network Theory and After. Ed. John Law and John Hassard. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1999. 1–14.

Marshall, P. David. “Persona Studies: Mapping the Proliferation of the Public Self.” Journalism 15.2 (2014): 153–170. 

Marshall, P. David. “The Intercommunication Challenge: Developing a New Lexicon of Concepts for a Transformed Era of Communication.” ICA 2011: Proceedings of the 61st Annual ICA Conference. Boston, MA: Intrenational Communication Association, 2011. 1–25. 

Paulas, Rick. “Step inside the Computer Screen of ‘Noah.’” VICE 18 Jan. 2014. 8 Feb. 2014. 

Schutz, Alfred. The Phenomenology of the Social World. Trans. George Walsh and Frederick Lehnert. London, UK: Heinemann, 1972.

Trumbore, Dave. “Indie Spotlight: NOAH - A 17-Minute Short Film from Patrick Cederberg and Walter Woodman.” Collider 2013. 2 Apr. 2014.

Warren, Christina. “The Short Film That Takes Place Entirely inside a Computer.” Mashable 13 Sep.2013. 9 Feb. 2014.

Woodman, Walter, and Patrick Cederberg. Noah. 2013. 


Keywords


persona; film analysis; Actor-Network Theory;



Copyright (c) 2014 Neil James Henderson

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

  • M/C - Media and Culture
  • Supported by QUT - Creative Industries
  • Copyright © M/C, 1998-2016
  • ISSN 1441-2616