Data Profiles and All The Princes Undercover

Once an absurd TV trope, this experience is now relatable.


There is a long entry about it on TV Tropes, so you have likely seen the scenario play out in sitcoms or novels. An ordinary character, perhaps with a quirk or two, something to suggest he is not quite as he seems, is eventually revealed to be a prince or a celebrity or from family fortune and vast riches. He’s the King Incognito. He just wants to know what it feels like to be anonymous in the world, walking around in normal clothes instead of a crown and robe. It is something the writers on Gossip Girl pulled out at least once a season. A character went on a date with the prince of Monaco who swapped identities with his driver, and another time, none other than Hilary Duff played a famous actress who enrolls in college and is pleased her identity remains undetected by a character she befriends, someone mostly oblivious to pop culture.

What interesting about this trope is it is an experience so few people could ever relate to — it is even hard to empathize with, because if you were in such a rarified place in the world, what would motivate you to abandon it, even temporarily? Most of us instead are tempted with opportunities to disguise ourselves through the reverse — to flaunt or embellish or otherwise exaggerate status we haven’t got, and try to pass ourselves off as more important rather than less. Then again, fame, as the posts on the Message this week have demonstrated, is a particularly unwieldy sort of power. It is not straightforward a command in persuasion and influence. And it isn’t emotionally nourishing in the ways that humans need from other humans.

But now I think the King Incognito trope is something many of us might find relatable. While we are still unlikely to have this experience as a cross-class shift, the opportunity to strip oneself of all digital context — search results, likes and faves, social graphs — might sound like a holiday. It would be a relief from the burden of performing yourself. The new ideal is to meet people that haven’t preconceived ideas, and haven’t assembled a picture of you by glancing at your profile or conducting a google search. There are expectations people place upon you when they are familiar with your general surface biography but not anything of your character.

via Flickr user: samiq

Someone once misheard me when I said my name at a bar. Since then “Japan,” has been my go to name when I need a fake one. A number of people have “Starbucks names,” either because it’s too frustrating to see the approximations written on a cup or because there’s something just a touch exciting about a momentary interaction outside of every context everyone else has created around you. If you are concerned about your data profile, lying — well, telling stories to computers — is one of the easiest ways to make your data less valuable and accurate. List false birthdays, make up events and stories to answer security questions, list a different city than the one where you were born if a computer asks for this information.

A different conversation flows when you meet someone for the first time who has no idea who you are and isn’t reaching for their phone to find out. An online persona reveals so little and conceals so much. I think in the coming years we will see interactions crafted specifically to hide from social network expectations and instead meet people free of context. What form this could take will be interesting to see played out. Instead of kings who want to see how the peasants live, we will seek out ways to blend in ungoogle-able, unverified, as just a person.


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