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Is this the age of the online avatar?

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It's far from perfect. Graphics aren't always fluid, though Linden continues to hone them (it has no plans yet to add a tactile component, Miller says). A fair amount of Second Life discourse evokes the base banter of early AOL chat rooms; cybersex and gambling are very popular here.

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Damer, who bought the rights to an advanced multi-user, real-time Web-chat platform called Traveler in 2001, points to the enormous time investment required of users to learn the ropes. Despite costume options that he says remind him of the performance-art festival Burning Man, Damer is put off by the emphasis on dance moves – writhing avatars pack virtual clubs – and by the relative uniformity of body type among its avatars.

"It becomes a kind of vanity fair," he says. "And I think it's pulling not just from a social-network thing but also from a primping network."

Technological issues exist too. Assuming the arrival of a superfunded player like Google, Damer says, and a standard could emerge.

"[But] I'm not sure that any 3-D platform, no matter how richly endowed and how open, has the capacity to become a broadly based open 'metaverse' that satisfies most people's needs and is around for 25 or 30 years," he says.

Another hurdle to broad participation in avatar worlds: Fantasy playgrounds actually don't work particularly well as social networks, says Danah Boyd, a doctoral candidate at Berkeley and fellow at USC's Annenberg Center who was dubbed the "high priestess of Internet friendship" last year by the Financial Times.

"[Successful] social-network sites like MySpace ... are primarily places where you actually model your social network on the people you see all day long," in simple representations closely tied to offline identities, Ms. Boyd says.

"We want our site to be real," says Jerry Kaplan, who runs Winster.com, where "mainly older women" meet and network. Some exchange photos, he writes in an e-mail. "[But this isn't about fantasy lives, avatars, or other masks."

Immersive 3-D fantasy games require immobility and a major investment in screen time. "More time at the computer," Boyd says, "is not what most people are seeking out."

Still, immersion has its whole-hearted backers. Sarah Robbins, an English instructor at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., sees Second Life and its avatars as both tools and object of study.

"We talk about how to 'unpack' certain types of messages," says Ms. Robbins, who teaches as Intelligirl, an extreme version of herself.

"The students read avatars as you would read a text," says Robbins. "We see it as a form of composition."

And marketers now study what some see as an interesting inside-out effect: Real-world firms that model designs and products and gauge how avatars interact with them, drawing lessons for real-world applications.

"Aloft, the hotel chain, was doing exactly that [last fall]," says Mike Cucka, an analyst with Group 1066, a marketing consultancy in New York.

Ultimately, individual avatars are about trying on masks. Second Life lets adults engage in the kind of social experimentation that used to be the province of teens, says Robbins.

"You get to continue to play with identity, take on new forms, new lifestyles, social skills, and there are no repercussions," she says. "You're not going lose your livelihood if you lose your Second Life job."

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