WRIT 501 header

The Concept of Persona in New Media


  1. I want you to analyze a specific rhetorical element--persona--as it exists in new media space.
  2. I want you to expand your understanding of the comparative affordances offered by print and electronic publication.
  3. I want you to start incorporating secondary research into your writings on new media.


The concept of "persona" is essential in analyzing traditional literary texts. Our sense of the voice presented by the text--which we inevitably associate with the artist who created the text--is one of the key elements we have to understand a work, and we rely on our sense of that voice more than we often realize. In the subset of new media called "social media," that sense of persona is extremely strong. We read people's blogs, status updates, and tweets to gain a sense of the person behind them--even when it's a person we know well--and the early research on social media, such as that carried out by the Pew Trust--suggests that as early as in our teens, we start to create multiple online personae or identitites, embellish and manipulate them, edit them or screen them to withhold or mask information--in other words, rhetorically adjust our own personae in the same ways that many of our favorite authors manipulate literary identities. So the subject of how, rhetorically, persona is created and reshaped in social media is a very interesting one--and it's a space that offers many opportunities for scholarship. This assignment will ask you to focus on the construction of one specific persona--either a well-known personality's or your own--in social media.


  1. Choose a prolific user of social media (web, blogging, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, etc.). It can be you or it can be someone else--perhaps an author like Neil Gaiman, whose novel Sandman we will be reading soon, or a celebrity like Lance Armstrong, maybe a fictional character's site as Williams writes about, or maybe just a really interesting person like Fat Cyclist. Try for a user whose presence involves some substance--Paris Hilton, for instance, is a prolific user, but probably not a very good target for this assignment. I recommend looking for writers if you're looking to analyze someone other than yourself, because, well, writers talk a lot about themselves, and that works for this assignment.

  2. Study this social media user's output over the course of a sustained period of at least two weeks. (The lovely thing about the Web is that you can go back easily through online archives.) Examine the way(s) in which this user creates, projects, and modifies her/his online persona. Document instances where you see particularly interesting things going on. If the user is on several platforms (for instance Facebook vs MySpace, or YouTube and Twitter, you may pick up valuable insights from comparing and contrasting the persona presented in each setting. You may want to use Albert Chan's preliminary taxonomy of social media users to help you identify and discuss what you see going on with your targeted user.

  3. Conduct some scholarly-level research (that means going to databases and not just Google, Bing, or Yahoo!) on social media and persona that deepens your analysis. You might look for coverage of this social media user, and note any public analysis of the development of the user's persona. If you are analyzing yourself, you can look at the published research on age group, gender, educational status, etc., of social media users, and see how you fit into the trends. You might want to look for instances of converging cultures such as Williams analyzes in her article. The key here is to use the outside work you find to help develop your own analysis; it's not a "research paper" on "Persona in the Tweets of Shaquille O'Neal" or something like that.

  4. Assemble an argumentative analysis, with a thesis, about the significant elements of persona that this user manifests in her/his social media identities. Unless you know the user well, you won't be able to say for sure how "true" the persona projected by the user is--but you can certainly talk in rhetorical terms about its authenticity, the kinds of appeals being made to audience(s), and the same kinds of elements you would talk about when analyzing the author's persona based on print works. See if you can pin down and describe any differences in the way that persona is manipulated in a social media environment than it would be in traditional print forms.

  5.  I'm deliberately leaving this a little hazy as to length and format because I want you to have the freedom to pick your user and slant your analysis in the way you think best; I'll be glad to discuss  your ideas with you as you develop this assignment. The focus in the end should be on the rhetorical element of persona and how it may change in social media. This is an experimental assigment and I'm not at all sure how it will turn out; that's part of the interest I have in it!


Present your analysis to the class by midnight on Monday October 26, either by publishing the essay as a blog or by announcing the appearance of your analysis in a message on the Ning site,
so that people have a chance to at least "surf" your analysis before class time. (Earlier announcements will of course be gratefully welcomed!)