Avatars and Online Identities

For this, my first blog (and also my first completely digitally accessible cyber-assignment), I decided to go back to a childhood spent playing with virtual dolls. The avatar you see here is not me, though it is as close appearance wise as I could come with the site I was using. Elouai.com is a dress-up-doll site. There are literally millions of different ways to dress one’s doll up on this site—and, because I like wasting my time on the internet as much as the next person, I’ve dressed a few dolls myself.

The second avatar is not me either—it is culled from a website called “The Best Page in the Universe,” which is run by the author of a book called The Alphabet of Manliness. While the assignment today was to compare and contrast two avatars, I think in this instance I am going to have to focus more on the latter—because to tell the truth, I’m having any trouble finding the similarities. I hope this is all right, as the two avatars were deliberately chosen for this reason, or, more specifically, because they display contrasting images of gender in the cyber world.

As David Bell said in one of our most recent readings, “work on gender in cyberculture has…been prolific and diverse”, so much so that he admitted to having some trouble sorting through it all in order to write anything remotely impartial. My interest in the subject stems from RL culture—more specifically, from another class I am taking in queer literature, the topics in which are coinciding with Digital Media topics, at least at the moment. Bell’s work speaks, among other things, of those members of cyberculture who present themselves as a different sex while on the internet, or choose to eliminate or queer (that’s queer as a verb, a term we’ve been playing around with in my LGBT Lit. class) the concept of gender entirely. The numerous authors we’re discussed in the queer literature class present similar people, but instead of changing their sex or sexuality online, they do so in real life.

What I would like to discuss today is a theory of my own, which seems to be growing in my mind—that one cannot participate in online culture without disposing of or changing their identity in some way, though that change may be unnoticeable at first. To demonstrate this, I would like to first offer my dress-up-doll avatar. Although, as I’ve said, it is not me, I really did do my best to make it look like me—hair, eye color, etc. But despite my best efforts, I was invariably limited by what the site had to offer. My doll could be female or male, she could only be white, she could only be tall and thin, she could only stand in one pose and, perhaps most irritatingly, she could only wear the clothes in the “girl” section of the site. In other words, my doll—and thus me—was limited by the site’s prescribed features of femininity. Though she aptly shows my gender she cannot show me any more than any other aspect of my gender that I might want displayed—for example, if I preferred to wear boys’ clothing. Yet since I have chosen her as a representative of myself, she inevitably comes to represent the virtual me. Thus my identity has been altered, though perhaps not intentionally, by the online culture in which I am participating.

To contrast this is the “Best Page in the Universe” avatar. The designer of this avatar had more control over what was displayed, and deliberately chose to display what might be considered “male” features—sharp black and white for contrast, a scruffy beard, an eyepatch—and yet he did not escape the trap I fell into with my doll. In trying to display his maleness, the designer made himself “manly”—a word which could easily be a subset of male, but could indicate another type of gender entirely. Though much of the website is based on an assumed persona of manliness, the author has almost no control over how his pictures or posts will be received, and therefore his online personality is defined in part simply by the act of being online.

If I’m to continue along the train of thought that led to this argument, I have to ask myself, if our online personalities can be determined by the click of a button, then what factors can determine the aspects of our real life personalities?

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