The Presentation of Self
on a Decentralised Web

Amy Guy

Doctor of Philosophy

Centre for Intelligent Systems and their Applications

School of Informatics

University of Edinburgh



Self presentation is evolving; with digital technologies, with the Web and personal publishing, and then with mainstream adoption of online social media. Where are we going next? One possibility is towards a world where we log and own vast amounts of data about ourselves. We choose to share - or not - the data as part of our identity, and in interactions with others; it contributes to our day-to-day personhood or sense of self. I imagine a world where the individual is empowered by their digital traces (not imprisoned), but this is a complex world.

This thesis examines the many factors at play when we present ourselves through Web technologies. I optimistically look to a future where control over our digital identities are not in the hands of centralised actors, but our own, and both survey and contribute to the ongoing technical work which strives to make this a reality. Decentralisation changes things in unexpected ways. In the context of the bigger picture of our online selves, building on what we already know about self-presentation from decades of Social Science research, I examine what might change as we move towards decentralisation; how people could be affected, and what the possibilities are for a positive change. Finally I explore one possible way of self-presentation on a decentralised social Web through lightweight controls which allow an audience to set their expectations in order for the subject to meet them appropriately.

I seek to acknowledge the multifaceted, complicated, messy, socially-shaped nature of the self in a way that makes sense to software developers. Technology may always fall short when dealing with humanness, but the framework outlined in this thesis can provide a foundation for more easily considering all of the factors surrounding individual self-presentation in order to build future systems which empower participants.

Lay summary

Many people express themselves online through social media, blogs, personal websites, and the like. Using these technologies affects our day-to-day lives, and sense of self. These technologies also change and develop in response to how people use them. Many of the tools we use come with constraints, and people often find ways to work around these constraints to suit their needs.

This thesis explores the different ways in which people express their identities using contemporary Web technologies. We conduct several studies, and show that there are many interdependent factors at play when it comes to online self-presentation, and that it is rare that all of these are considered when studying or designing social systems. We present a conceptual framework which will enable cohesive further research in this area, as well as guidance for future system designs.

In the second part, we discuss how these technologies are changing. We make contributions to an emerging alternative means of engaging with social media and similar technologies, and examine the implications of these new technologies on self-presentation.


I declare that this thesis was composed by myself, that the work contained herein is my own except where explicitly stated otherwise in the text, and that this work has not been submitted for any other degree or professional qualification except as specified.

Amy Guy


The process of assembling this thesis has been both social and decentralised, as well as distributed. I owe much to many, and can hardly begin to express my gratitude.

To PhD support groups..

Jane and Felicity, cakes and unicorns. Paolo, Sergio and Michael, and all who passed through IF2.35. KitB and Tigo, following me around Edinburgh. TomSka, Bown; London friends and YouTubers who inspire and distract. Liz Powers; a year of sunshine and hammocktime and dramatic readings of my abstracts.

Invaluable collaborations..

The BBC's Linked Data Platform team, for that 'real world' experience (and falafel). The SOCIAM research group, who took me in. Max van Kleek and Dave Murray-Rust, the fastest coauthors in the West. The IndieWebCamp community, for challenging me, teaching me, and most importantly... making me just ship it already.

The W3C Social Web Working Group; started out as procrastination, and the rest was history. The Decentralized Information Group at MIT, with whom I spent a year. Timbl is as nice as everyone says he is. Ilaria Liccardi's mentorship and unstoppable attitude is unbeatable.

Working for the W3C; a distant pipe-dream, suddenly reality. Thanks Sandro Hawke for having faith in me and being on the same wavelength when things are exasperating.

Lunatic scholarship; Sarven Capadisli takes you from stylesheet switching to revolutionising academic publishing in under a minute. #LinkedResearch, distractions of epic proportions; life will never be the same again. 💩

Wandering enablers...

I passed through 17 countries during the 4 years of my PhD. Credit to CISA's generous student travel budget, the Semantic Web conference circuit, and W3C meetings. And those who gave me a place to crash in their homes or hotel rooms across the US and Europe:

Ann Bassetti, what a role model. Chris Webber; Tantek Celik; Aaron Parecki (whos IndieWebCat Dora will always have a better website than me); Harry Halpin; Henry Story; and the roaming elf Pavlik.

In the last stretch of writing up, I escpaed to the Southern Hemisphere:

I slept in my little brother Dave's closet for a month in Tokyo. Ann, my Malaysian Mum, took care of me for three months in Penang. I met Ninni at Bali airport, and we knocked out our theses together in Canggu cafes.

Tammy and Jon, the Wholey Wonders, who provided a continuous stream of vegan food and a wifi connection and let me hole up in their tiny apartment when my thesis was two days overdue. Things were getting desperate. I don't know what I would have done without you.

For humouring me...

Ewan Klein, I couldn't have imagined a better supervisor. Remember that one time I had a crisis and instead of sitting me in your office and giving me deadlines you took me to Peter's Yard and bough me coffee and pecan pie and we chatted about non-PhD things? Probably not. But I'll never forget. You gave me space when I needed it, and instruction when I needed it, and distraction when I needed it. It worked perfectly.

And my parents of course, who never once gave me the impression I was heading in the wrong direction.


Goffman's terminology for the role one can assume when one is no longer performing for an audience.
A system in which multiple authorities control different components and no single authority is fully trusted by all others.
The joining together of software instances such that activities on one are seen on another (usually by means of a protocol).
Goffman's terminology for a persona, which is performed for an audience.
The quality of being able to exchange data or trigger processes without any prior arrangement.
A piece of software which can only interoperate with other instances of itself.
online presence
Traces of a person or persona which can be found around the Web, perhaps in the form of profiles.
A role that one assumes or displays in public.
A digital representation of a person or persona, made up of a subset of their attributes, activities, interactions, and generated data.
A set of possible communication actions between computer systems.
The act of performing a persona.
A system which stores and/or generates data, but does not let any in or out.
social system
Web-based networked publics which offer individuals consistent and reusable access to an account which they can customise and use to interact in some form with others in the system.
Technical specifications which formally define and describe software systems.