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Elizabeth Amanda Flynn

To view Amanda Flynn’s Facebook page, click here – you’ll need to log into Facebook.

While attempting to live the life of a (non-existent) person during my last project – where I’d attempted to construct a personality for a character in the single-player role-playing game Oblivion, and play according to that personality – I came across a few interesting concerns. Among them: Where did I end, and she begin? What of my personality was reflected in her? How could I live another person’s actions in a world that was hers, not mine? And, most important to me: What is my responsibility to the personalities or representations I create?

This last question was the most interesting to me because we had spent so much time talking about how well our online selves (our “avatars”) reflected or represented us, but not given thought to how well we represented them. It gave those avatars a life that they didn’t have before, but as that life was under my control, I didn’t know quite how to deal with it, how to preserve it, what obligations I should feel towards it.

When I first conceived of this new project, I had set myself the task of constructing a person who existed only in representation. I envisioned a scrapbook of sorts: she would have pictures, maybe some poetry, some notes written from friends about her personality. When I’d laid out these parameters, I realized that the best – and easiest – way to frame this project was in a Facebook page, as Facebook is a familiar setting with cleanly partitioned areas for writing everything a person would ever want to reveal about herself to a wide range of people.

As I did with Mezzo, my character for the Oblivion project, I quickly went to work devising and laying out a personality for this person, whom I’d dubbed Elizabeth Amanda Flynn (or “Amanda” to her friends). Amanda was to be smart, artistic, outgoing, funny, and generally likable; on the other hand, she was also not going to be able to deal with pressure or drama too well, and thus be something of a fair-weather friend. Soon, I had a page up, and was posting statuses about how awesome it was to finally have a Facebook. Between a few random invites to people I thought would be interested, and posts on the Haverford student forum Go! and the class blog, I soon had acquired a great many friends – forty in the first day. By the time of this writing just under a week later, she has 19 photos, 67 friends, one long quiz about herself, and several pages worth of Wall posts to or by her. Essentially, I have succeeded in my goal of creating a person who has a complete presence in one virtual representation, and exists only there.

(It was never my intent, I should mention, to convince people that Amanda Flynn was a person who existed in real life. Obviously, I expected that some people would come across her page and believe that, but I never tried to trick people into friending her, or to see if people would just friend someone they didn’t actually know in person. To me, that would simply be an exercise for proving that the internet contains gullible people, which did not seem to be a particularly innovative endeavor.)

There were a few fundamental differences between Amanda and Mezzo. For starters, Amanda had to be believable, to be a real woman attending Haverford and to have real friends, and this had its own problems. I had to develop a believable, consistent personality and to maintain it in her writing and interactions with others. On a more basic level, however, I had to have pictures, which was a tricky task. I wanted someone to play her, which meant it had to be someone who was willing to be photographed and to hang out with my friends (the people I thought would be most likely to write on Amanda’s Wall). Ultimately, I decided upon my friend Katherine, for a few reasons. First, she fit in well with my group of friends, and so I wouldn’t have to awkwardly stage photographs of some stranger pretending to have fun. That said, Katherine hadn’t spent a lot of time with that group, so pictures of all of us having fun together were not particularly numerous already. That aside, her appearance, clothing choice (the perpetual hat especially) and manners seemed to me to fit Amanda fairly well.

Actually posting the pictures, however, made me very nervous. I was concerned that it would change people’s image of Amanda to see that she was being represented by another student on campus, and that for anyone, myself included, who knew Katherine, Amanda’s personality would be forever colored. Whether this actually happened, I’m not sure, as the initial rush of Wall posts had died down by then. However, I noticed another interesting occurrence: at least one person, having seen the page, had presumed that it was Katherine’s construction, and were unsure as to why she had made another personality for herself. This, while not particularly desirable, was to me preferable to having Amanda’s personality itself permanently distorted. The pictures, on the whole, added a lot to the project, I feel, and in the context of the personality I’d created in the rest of the page, Amanda’s desires, quirks, and background seemed to map onto Katherine’s poses in a way that worked well for me.

Amanda’s friend-making process was not at all what I had expected. For starters, I expected to have to coerce all my close friends into friending her and perpetually bother them to post on her Wall. This was unnecessary, and in fact most of the people who interacted with Amanda were not my close friends, and did so happily and with only minimal persuading. While some laced their comments with ironic, sometimes-veiled references to Amanda’s artificial nature – something not particularly in keeping with how I’d envisioned the project – many simply commented on the fun times they had had with her over the weekend, or made coffee dates with her. The way people were willing to play along with it was great, and made her page very full and real-looking.

My responsibilities to Mezzo, who existed only in a single-player virtual world, were all in my head. No one else knew her or cared about her, and this made my compulsion to play her personality faithfully somewhat peculiar; I felt like I had to protect her integrity of character because I had made her, and without me, she didn’t exist. With Amanda, my obligation was different. I had to preserve her precisely because she was watching. My obligation to her personality was twofold; I had to appease the expectations of those who were observing her and – I admit it with some embarrassment – I felt like she wouldn’t want me misrepresenting her. This, of course, brings us back to the whole question of what it means to have a representation of someone who doesn’t exist, and in this case what I found was similar to what I found with Mezzo: that my idea of who Amanda Flynn should be was something I wanted to preserve, and to convey to others.

As it was, however, I soon discovered that I did not have nearly so much agency over Amanda’s personality and existence as I had Mezzo. Her representation online, in a space where anyone could comment on her, made her suddenly not quote the person I had envisioned. Her immediate acquisition of many friends, all of whom had some idea in mind of how Amanda behaved or what she had done. She was subject to many different perspectives, and they kept her from being exactly the person I had envisioned. One of the most memorable examples of this, to me, was when at the request of several of my female friends I changed her sexual preferences listing from “men” to unlisted; these friends felt that if she didn’t have anyone listed, it might mean she was interested in women, too. This resulted in a subtle but significant change in my own imagining of Amanda’s personality, not to mention a rude awaking as to how much control I had over her.

A mentor once imparted to me a Buddhist teaching: “Expectation is the root of suffering.” Thinking about what I’ve seen in this project, I find that to be a valuable statement. All that we ever experience in the real world is, in truth, just perceptions of representations, expectations of a consistent reality derived from momentary glimpses into a perpetually changing subject. I knew what I expected of Amanda Flynn, and when other people in their interactions with her altered that, I felt as though Amanda Flynn herself had been attacked, or perhaps that she had betrayed me. She hadn’t, of course; she never existed. But this gave me interesting insight into how expectation alters our interactions with real people. In romance, the most pain often comes from betrayed expectations; a woman feels betrayed in learning that her spouse has been cheating on her because she didn’t expect that from him, and he is attacking her image of who he is. The implications of this project are troubling: If all we ever see are representations, then what differentiates a very convincing representation from something real? As technology progresses, will it be possible to maintain a fake person who can exist convincingly in all realms of life and not merely on Facebook? What real experiences can be gathered from our interactions with representations, especially representations of things that are not “real?” – and so on. Amanda raises more questions than she answers, and as the technology of representation continues to change, and the creator of that representation is afforded more control or anonymity, these questions will become ever more important to address.

Thank-yous to:

-Facebook, for their awesome (and thoroughly horrifying) social networking site

-Katherine Lo, for being such a good sport

-Everyone who was friends with Amanda, and was willing to play along with my craziness