Social virtual spaces proliferate on the contemporary Internet and some 80% of Internet users may now be regularly visiting them (Daniel). In the following discussion, I shall discuss one such social space—a multi-user virtual environment (MUVE) called Second Life (SL as it is referred to by residents)—and argue that complex and dialogic links exist between the offline user and her/his online representative, the avatar.
I shall begin by presenting a brief overview of relevant theoretical concepts drawn largely from symbolic interactionist theorists. I shall then discuss where we might situate the avatar within the wider context of persona studies and explore the complexity involved in developing a sense of self via an avatar (or persona). Finally, I shall draw on my own experience in SL to illustrate the two-way nature of the processes under discussion.
Mirrors and Selves
When one looks into a mirror, the mirror’s silver backing (the tain) allows a view of self and surroundings reflected back. Yet even in this case, our reflection has subtle and fascinating differences, it is not quite exactly “us.” Explanations for the effect this has on us come from various theoretical perspectives. For example, psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan writes that very young children experience in play the relation “between the movements assumed in the image and the reflected environment, and between this virtual complex and the reality it reduplicates” (2). The word “virtual” suggests a gap between the child’s performance and the exhibition of that performance in the mirror. Lacan contends that the child itself does not perceive this gap, but rather mistakes the image for the thing itself—a méconnaissance that ensures we accept the mirror image as “us.” The tain is thus simultaneously restrictive, because it has a limited field of view, and enabling, because it provides one of our first experiences of our self as other.
From a symbolic interaction perspective, C. H. Cooley develops the mirror analogy in his Looking Glass Self concept. For Cooley, the self develops in relation to how we imagine we look to others and we learn to see others as our “mirror.” Our reflection in their perceptions requires us to imagine how we appear to others and then how they judge our appearance. Finally, we develop a sense of ourselves based on that judgement. Thus, others with whom we interact reflect us back to ourselves and we view our self from the viewpoint of others whose signs we learn to interpret. Two consequences arise. First, we could receive different reflections back from different individuals. Second, we become habituated to a gap between performance of self, its reception, and the reflection of that performance back to us.
Erving Goffman’s work on self-presentation and interaction rituals offers further dimensions to understanding this process, stressing the importance of impression management to monitor inconsistencies in performance of the self as it appears to others. For Goffman, this management occurs both before the performance as we prepare ourselves in the back stage, and on the front stage as we perform for our audience. Social interaction is thus a performance, governed by social rules and rituals understood by both audience and performer. The dialectic relationship between performance and its reception introduces an element of intentionality to the performance itself. When the performance is not well received, for example, its reflection back to the performer may lead to adjustments in the performance to correct flaws brought about by failure to appropriately follow the rules of interaction. Through interaction with others, therefore, we learn dramaturgically appropriate roles and performances and we come to understand the nuances involved in successful enactment. The “audience” for whom we perform may be either internalised or actual. In either case, the image that we see in the mirror, and the image we imagine reflected back is both “us” and something more. But it is unhelpful to think of the internalised and actual as dichotomous.
All three models so far discussed intuit a space between performance and reflection, suggesting that we experience our self through “symbols, language, social structures, and situated variables of social interaction” (Waskul and Lust 338-39) rather than directly. Even our image in an actual mirror extends, then, beyond the tain by which the glass is backed because we overlay what we see in the mirror with social nuances arising outside of the image-reflection dyad. Rather than consider this image a reflection of “us,” it is helpful to think of it as a persona—the personality (or presence) that a person adopts and presents to other people. It may be “our” persona in that it is linked to a physical person, but, as noted above, it may also be contextually multiple and variously mediated through social interaction and symbols such as dress.
To explore more fully the interplay between person and persona I shall now introduce online contexts as sites of reflection, beginning with a brief discussion of the avatar as persona.
Marshall argues that contemporary culture exhibits an expansive world of online persona creation with individuals increasingly engaging in self-branding (Personifying). Although Marshall does not discuss MUVEs, his observation is equally applicable to such environments. In MUVEs, as in the online contexts Barbour and Marshall discuss, persona creation is a process of strategic intentionality whereby we present a chosen aspect from among the many to be found in us all. In MUVES the vehicle for that creation is the avatar. The avatar is an individual’s embodiment in virtual space, an extension of self through which the user experiences the virtual world (Behm-Morawitz). Just as the persona permits us “to explore the masks of identity” (Marshall, Personifying 380), the avatar offers opportunities for exploration and experimentation. For Marshall the persona in the public on-line world is constructed by media and communication systems and enacted through individual intention and agency (Personifying). The avatar is similarly constructed and enacted. Both persona and avatar are mutable and, as Marshall suggests in relation to persona, part of a specular economy manifesting an increasing consciousness of self-presentation and others’ perceptions (Specular). I do not think it overstated to indicate these similarities with the composite term “avatar-persona.”
The graphical object-body is the vehicle whereby MUVE users experience interacting with others and with their environment (Messinger et al.). They experience their avatar self as if it were their actual self (Behm-Morawitz). Our virtual experiences are grounded in, and inextricably linked to, our physicality. One’s “presence” with one’s avatar may facilitate and be uniquely linked to avatar influence on the offline self (Behm-Morawitz). In this sense “presence”—the sense of being actually present and being recognised as present by others there—may bridge both sides of the screen. This two-way transfer is analogous to the person’s capacity to move others into action noted by Marshall (Personifying). Further, as some research has shown, the representation of self through an avatar not only effects online behaviour but actually may also have continued effects on offline behaviour and avatars may come to change who we are in both online and offline environments (Yee and Bailenson).
Marshall (Specular) argues that the online and mobile media screen as mirror produces persona and that the mirror as a surface reflects and allows one to be seen and to interrelate or communicate with others. The MUVE also acts as a virtual mirror screen within which the avatar-persona operates. The avatar-persona is the virtual analogue of the mirror persona discussed in relation to Lacan and symbolic interaction formulations. I turn now to how these processes and interconnections manifest in SL in order to explore the complexities inherent in the interplay of self, avatar-persona and other.
SL is a three dimensional virtual world where “everyone you see is a real person and every place you visit is built by people just like you” (http://secondlife.com/whatis/?lang=en-US). SL “residents” (as they refer to themselves) engage in role-playing games in-world, co-create content with other residents, and indulge in a huge variety of social activities including sexual and/or affective relationships with other residents. SL is an immersive social environment offering sophisticated graphical building tools, avatar appearance modification potentials, and both synchronous (real time) and asynchronous (delayed) avatar-to-avatar communication for residents who are geographically located in all parts of the offline world.
In MUVEs, one sees the avatar-persona as a third person. In SL this is due to the potential for 360-degree camera views of the avatar, ensuring that our avatar becomes the object of our view, placing us in a position both of an active I controlling an avatar and a distanced other watching that self move and speak (Zhao). These dynamics raise interesting questions about interaction, self-presentation, and self-construction (Gottschalk), the answers to which represent a continuum between two far from mutually exclusive poles. On the one hand, research based on SL (see for example work by Messinger et al., or Martey and Consalvo) has shown that, despite an almost limitless potential for modification, most avatars are idealised representations of their creator’s offline selves. Given this correlation between online and offline manifestations, I suggest that the avatar operates more like a mirror that is not wholly restricted by the tain.
On the other hand, writers such as Sherry Turkle have argued (before the existence of MUVEs) that the Internet permits multiplicity and mutability in subjectivity. In a contemporary context social virtual worlds provide “a free ‘potential space’ where real individuals—qua avatars—can and do attempt to create an alternative reality. Here they simultaneously concretize their individualistic fantasies […] and enact aspects of their selves they did not know exist, were too embarrassed to admit, or always wanted to master” (Gottschalk 521-22). SL permits hybridity of identity, plasticity of form, and multiplicity of avatars, ensuring fluid and chimerical possibilities (Morie and Verhulsdonck) for single or multiple avatar-persona per offline self. Residents frequently switch between avatar-persona to suit particular needs or social contexts. In this respect, SL is less a mirror than a kaleidoscope, where changing patterns emerge with a turn of the lens.
In neither case is the process one-way. “When people define the virtual as real, it becomes real in its consequences, and the reciprocal effects between the self and the avatar extend to more central aspects of one’s life as well” (Gottschalk 513). Avatars are distinct selves, not just conduits for offline identities. They socially manifest a projective identity or identities that are influential intersections of offline people and online representations situated within socially performed dramaturgical selves (Martey and Consalvo).
Cunningham writes that “[a]fter virtual reality, ‘reality’ is not the same, but has been altered by the bleeding of both ‘worlds’ into each other, by their mutual inseparability” (16). In this mutual inseparability a dialogic interaction occurs between offline self and avatar-persona. Both engage in a continuous interaction and active negotiation between the parties. It is in this dialogic that we find the eventual outcome of a mirror without a tain. The mirror’s “glass” no longer requires its tain for reflection because the dialogic between offline self and avatar-persona is maintained by the process of creation, performance, reception and exhibition as all parties operate under the gaze of others outside their individual dialogic. Other SL residents also see the avatar-persona, just as the offline creator interacts with others in physical space outside SL.
Symbolic interactionist perspectives assist in understanding the reflexive processes through which individuals come to see themselves as objects of their own and others’ gaze(s) (Aspling). As object to one’s self and to others, self and avatar have already rehearsed a performance in their own view before permitting others to see that performance and reflect it back. Watching others respond to our avatar-persona provides feedback for self-representation and communication patterns (Gottschalk). Just as a curator assembles and presents an exhibition, our avatar image is “returned” to us subtly changed, re-presented to us at one step removed from its creation, rearranged in the judgement of the other, and manifesting the imagined reception by its viewer. This expands the self’s repertoire beyond SL, continuing to inform us offline and online (Gottschalk).
The avatar-persona stimulates objective and rational observation of oneself, generating the “observing ego” (Gottschalk 514-515). Crucially, however, the avatar is more than just a placeholder for the self. The avatar is a site for self-making in its own right because it informs our offline life. In this way, the avatar may force us to partake in our own self-construction by taking “the role of the other,” another who is in fact both a persona and a person (Waskul and Lust 349-350). My own experience in SL further illustrates these ideas.
Self-Representation—One Avatar’s Experience
“Choices about avatar appearance can be understood as social performances that communicate both social and individual identities” (Martey and Consalvo 166). Although SL purports to confer on its residents near total control over all aspects of appearance and in-world identity, as in the offline world personal appearance in SL involves situated, bodily practices that are both discursively practical and function as a collection of codes that communicate to other users.
I first learned of SL in 2007. Then, as now, it was depicted as a world of limitless possibilities. My first experience of avatar life was, however, somewhat disappointing. Entering the first stage in the avatar creation process and hopeful of creating an androgynous avatar, I was given only two default choices—male or female. Reflecting my offline self, I chose to make my first avatar female. I chose a name that was not gender-specific but that had personal meaning to me. Once in-world, and realising that I could drastically modify my avatar’s body shape, I set about making the avatar as androgynous as I could. The body modification was challenging, but not impossible. The avatar appearance modifiers were not fine grained enough to make the face authentically androgynous however. To circumvent this drawback I decided to make my avatar a “Furry”. Furries are anthropomorphic animal avatars with human figures and animal heads, hands, feet and tails. An animal head for my avatar-persona allowed me to avoid gender specificity.
Thinking that I had successfully met my goal, I next ventured into the social spaces of SL. The first thing another avatar said to me was “So are you a boy or a girl in real life?” I evaded the question then, and continued to evade similar questions for three months. During that time I was frequently derided for my reluctance to gender identify. Although the sociologist in me found this fascinating, the almost constant questioning began to impact upon my enjoyment of SL. Eventually after one particularly nasty attack (called “griefing” in SL) my avatar was left so badly distorted that I decided to “retire” it. Examining my reaction, I was surprised to find that the remorselessly unpleasant reaction to my avatar had generated the bleeding between worlds referred to by Cunningham—my performance was exhibited back to me in unfavourable terms. I was upset. I had chosen a name for the avatar, an animal identity, and a personality that all had RL significance for me.
My experience underscored for me a point Martey and Consalvo make. Avatar identity is self-constructed, they argue, within the constraints of the offline user’s goals, (I wanted to create and live in an androgynous avatar) the interface used to create the online appearance (the SL viewer interface was not sophisticated enough for me to easily do this, nor did it give me a third choice for the gender of my avatar), and the social systems of the virtual space (there was clearly an expectation that I was not meeting by refusing to disclose my offline sex). The bleed back was enough to generate decisions by my offline self multiple times in the three-month life of that avatar. My avatar self had not met with favourable audience reaction because I had refused to comply with dramaturgical propriety by disclosing my offline sex and had failed to create a fictional offline identity to get around the issue. My fault lay in not sufficiently aligning how my avatar looked and acted with its offline correlate because I refused to disclose any actual or false offline correlate. In dramaturgical terms, I refused to interact with audience reception thus stepping outside the interaction order.
I have argued that one develops a sense of self in interaction with others through actual and conceptual mirroring. The process can occur in many contexts, even in the absence of a co-present other because we internalise the other’s view. We bring these dynamics with us to online settings. Using SL as an example, I suggested that online the mistaken singularity of self and reflection noted by Lacan becomes multiple in the way a kaleidoscope generates multiple patterns when turned by the user. SL’s visuality and its potential for three-dimensional viewing of one’s avatar encourages a looking-glass-self approach to identity—a re-presentation of the self-object as we imagine others see it. We achieve identity in the eyes of multiple others, including seeing our avatar self as object. Avatar-residents in SL may act as mirrors to the offline self, but interactions are multiply complex, blurring the boundaries between online and offline experience(s), between offline person and online avatar-persona and between avatars and other avatar-residents. Impression management, interactional dynamics, and strategic self-representation render the avatar-persona one facet of the offline self rather than its entirety. Audience reaction comes not only from other avatar residents, but also from the offline self responding to that reaction and their own understanding of dramaturgical propriety. SL is a place where avatar-personas are fashioned in liminal boundaries between interaction between the self and its avatar/other (Waskul and Lust) as well as clarifying the interactions between self and others. Like other online contexts, SL is a mirror without a tain. In its specular economy, reflectivity is unbounded, an endlessly recombinant field of self-other interactions, a kaleidoscope of potential.
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