Avatars: like learning to speak prose?

From a link on My Name Is Kate, I found an intriguing piece on virtual worlds and avatars by Susan Wu. Clearly the universe wanted me to pay attention to this, since today’s Washington Post carried a story about cyber-HQs for French politicians, including a crowd of protesters “attacking” the National Front office of right-wing candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen with “pig grenades.”

I’ve avoided Second Life, not because I’m opposed to virtual worlds but because I need another time sink like a hippo needs a harpsichord. Clearly, many people enjoy these worlds, and I do have a sense of how strong a virtual connection can be.

In her article, Wu (who’s a venture capitalist with extensive background in online gaming) shares several ideas that made an impact on me:

  • Identity is at the heart of everything. She believes that the distance between a person’s online and offline personalities is shrinking. I think that’s true, though it’s at a fairly early stage yet. (I think of myself as not an early adopter, but was part of the GEnie alpha test back more than 20 years ago. And I recall a strong sense of owning my screen name.)
  • We already all have avatars, we just don’t see them. Wu argues that everyone using the web has an avatar, not just the people at Second Life or in multiplayer games.

(added to the original post)
Not a character avatar, necessarily, but our online interactions (via mail, via chat, via forum or blog posts) create an online presence. We might choose to make that presence different from how we see our physical-world selves, or we might try to have the two mesh.

Personality comes from persona, a Latin word for a mask worn by an actor. (One synonym for “actor” is “agent,” meaning the person who causes something to happen.) So I’m the agent behind any persona I project through the tone of my email, through my IM exchanges, through chat rooms and discussions and blogs.

As I’m writing, it occurs to me that the persona I think I present (in any medium, including face-to-face) is not necessarily the one another person perceives… that’s a whole other musing, but one worth returning to.
(end of the after-the-original addition)

Wu’s point about identity, I think, connects with a notion I’ve had about labeling in general. I keep hoping that the tendency to stick “2.0” after everything web-related will fade, as has the tendency to stick “e-” in front of everything.

We have only another decade or so of carrying on about computers as the big new bad/good thing. They’re about to disappear from view the way motors did. Engines were cause for wonder and speculation when they ran ships and railroads. Nobody called the automobile or truck a personal railroad, but that’s what it was, and people still were impressed. Then motors got smaller and disappeared into lawn mowers, refrigerators, toothbrushes, wristwatches, and nobody…speculates now about what motors will become or worries much about what they are doing to human dignity or economic inequality.

Stewart Brand

Maybe not labeling so much as techie-ness: selfconsciousness about the process rather than the product. You don’t hear “guess where I’m calling from” much any more; we’re used to cell phones. My hunch is that after people spend enough time in a virtual world, the draw isn’t so much the world itself as what they can do in that world. And over time most people aren’t going to play digital dress-up: they’re going to express themselves as they choose, but I think most will choose an online facet (so to speak) that reflects an aspect of who they are in real life.

We already have avatars: I hadn’t thought about online presence this way, but Wu is right. The term “avatar” obscured this for me, but as she points out, “we just aren’t using the graphical metaphor of a virtual character to represent [ourselves online].” Instead we have a screen name, or an IM identity, or a Skype ID, or a blog… and so, like Molière’s Monsieur Jourdain, we can say, “What do you know? I’ve been speaking in prose without knowing it.”

Here’s another thought from Wu:

Camera angles are important in immersive environments.

We have very little concept of  camera manipulation in our web environments today. But camera design is actually quite an important component in thinking about player immersion. There’s a huge amount of prior learning in the game design space pertaining to the use of cameras and how it correlates with good user experiences. Some of the best games give liberal camera control to the user – because camera angles should be situational, and because it allows players more control over the context of their engagement.

While she’s looking at online presence from a product / marketing perspective, but this multi-dimensional idea connects directly to how people go about learning… so much so I’m going to mull about that in a later post.

4 thoughts on “Avatars: like learning to speak prose?

  1. Dave .. this is a great analysis with some thought-provoking commentary! Am glad the universe wants you to read up on SL :) I hear Leonard Brody speak this past Wednesday and he made the assertion that in the next X years (5, 10?) we’ll spend more time in virtual communities (whether as IM IDs, email addresses, social network handles or SL avatars) than we will in physical communities. That’s pretty significant.

    The way that the “current” generation (Gen Y, the Millennials) construct identity is already very different from my generation (GenX) as well as the Boomers. To them, fluid, multiple, virtual identities are the norm. They try on identities the way they try on outfits at the mall. I love this because my hope is that it will increase self-esteem. If they get to test-drive an identity in the virtual word before certain physical-world situations (e.g. new school, first date, etc), it may increase their confidence.

    Of course, two generations after them, that “try before you buy” concept may be totally foreign or unnecessary.

    Oh, and re: camera angles. There is a function in SL called “alt-zoom” where you hold the alt key and can then zoom your camera in on something. A friend of mine said once you start spending time in SL, you’ll find yourself wanting alt-zoom in real life. I didn’t believe her, but then the other day, it happened! And I thought WHOA. So the perception of RL is being impacted by virtual worlds.

    Awesome, thought-provoking piece, Dave. Thanks!

  2. Kate:

    Brody’s got a good point, especially since he includes email and IM as part of a person’s virtual presence. It’s kind of the way that people tend not to think of email as part of the internet. Email’s just floating out there, I guess, like citizenship, while creating a SL avatar is like joining a political party’s local committee.

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