Saturday, February 8, 2014


Who are we when we're online? And who is anyone else? Is anyone really who they seem to be?

Ever since the first graphical computer interfaces, icons and images of increasing size and depth have been part of the experience; who who has known them can forget our old friends Sad Mac, Dancing Baby, or Max Headroom? And in fact, the idea of describing one's on-screen graphic self as an "avatar" (an ancient word with origins in the Vedas) was first used in a computing context way back in 1985, in reference to Lucasfilm's game "Habitat" -- the first online role-playing game with a graphical element, albeit one that looks incredibly primitive to today's users. Until the WWW interface in the early 1990's, of course, there was no way for a user to share a graphical self outside of a game world, but as soon as people could, they did. No one seems to be quite sure just when they first appeared, but soon they were common in online forums, blogs, and on various IRC (Internet Relay Chat) systems. MySpace, famously, allowed for avatars and pseudonyms to flourish, such that question of who someone actually was ceased being a matter of importance.  Facebook originally insisted on real identities, but has since given way to various levels of pseudonymity, so long as the user supplies Facebook itself with his or or her "RL" (Real Life) identity.

Avatars come in many flavors; the most common are cartoons, celebrity figures, and consumer products such as cars. The use of animated GIF files enabled many of them, even in the early days of the net, to incorporate motion.  A sampling of popular icons today shows much the same (figures from Family Guy and The Simpsons have a long shelf-life). And of course avatars also persist in modern online gamespace, although the fact that a single player may have many characters in the same game has led to different words for them; in World of Warcraft, it's much more common to call them "toons" or sometimes "chars."

The most insidious avatars are those that, by their very nature, are already known to be fictitious -- online assistants, customer-service bots, and the icons used by any and all of a site's admins (administrators).

But what is the result of this world full of altered egos? Would trolls be less troll-like if they had to display their actual faces? Some users have used a similar 'handle' or icon for so many years that it quite literally takes on a life of its own; among my own acquaintance are two: Sarah Higley, writer and professor at the University of Rochester, is also known as Sally Caves, who lives on Second Life, produces machinima and has written an episode of STTNG; my friend Charles Isbell, a computer specialist with a degree from MIT, is also known as HfH -- the Homeboy from Hell -- when he writes reviews of Hip-hop albums, which he's done for twenty years. Having an avatar has, I think, helped many people sort out the conflicting demands and desires of our increasingly complex lives.

But there is a dark side, too. Avatars can serve to deceive, defraud, and harass other users; most notorious are the "sockpuppets"used to add self-generated comments and cheers to one's own online work. So what should we say?  Should "real" identities be enforced? Or do such policies only make matters worse? Have you ever used an avatar, or been deceived by one? Post your answers & comments below!

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