Avatars: Portraying, Exploring, and Changing Online and Offline Identities

Avatars: Portraying, Exploring, and Changing Online and Offline Identities

Jesse Fox (The Ohio State University, USA) and Sun Joo Ahn (University of Georgia, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-2211-1.ch014
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Avatars are defined as virtual representations that are controlled by a human user. Commonly, we observe avatars in video and online games, social networking sites, and virtual worlds. This chapter explores the use of avatars in the expression, exploration, and evolution of users’ identities, both online and offline. Theoretical explanations for the creation, manipulation, use, and effects of avatars are offered, including identification, transformed social interaction, and the Proteus effect. The adoption of avatars for identity expression, exploration, and change is discussed, including Turkle’s notion of fragmented selves and Nakamura’s concept of identity tourism. Research that has investigated the effects of avatars on self-perceptions and identity in various domains (such as health, marketing, finance, and environmental behaviors) is addressed. Implications and future directions for research in this area are discussed.
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The word avatar is adapted from the Sanskrit for “descent,” used to describe a Hindu god emerging from the heavens and bodily manifesting itself in order to intervene in human affairs. Generically, the term avatar can refer to any representation of a person. Names, online profiles, and dolls can all be considered types of avatars by this broad definition (Bailenson & Blascovich, 2004). Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson’s (1992) science fiction novel, popularized the use of the word as it is commonly understood today, to describe a digital representation in a virtual environment.

Avatars and the virtual spaces they inhabit have transformed our ability to express and explore identity, yielding effects both on- and offline. Avatars enable users to “intersect with a technological object and embody themselves, making the virtual environment and the variety of phenomena it fosters real” (Taylor, 2002, p. 41). Embodying an avatar is a recursive identity process; each time users enter the virtual world, they are testing the affordances of their online selves. The fluidity of virtual representations and virtual environments has encouraged new interpretations of identity. Indeed, Turkle (1995) noted that: “Traditional ideas about identity have been tied to a notion of authenticity that such virtual experiences actively subvert” (p. 185). Avatars offer a unique way for users to portray facets of their identities, explore their wishful identities, and change aspects of their identities both offline and online. This chapter seeks to explore these processes as well as the theoretical processes that drive these experiences.


Avatar As Self-Representation

Virtual spaces give us the opportunity to selectively portray the self. Whether on a social networking site or an online gaming platform, we use avatars to represent ourselves. Nakamura (2002) argued that the use of graphical, visual avatars in place of text-based names and description creates a new domain and social experience online. Even with the freedom to represent ourselves as we choose, avatars require us to make selections on what features we portray and gives others visual substance through which they can make quick judgments (Kolko, 1998). Thus, our avatars are evaluated by the same appearance-based criteria we are first judged upon in offline settings (Weibel, Stricker, Wissmath, & Mast, 2010). Users may choose how they appear to others in a virtual environment. Sometimes users are limited to an assortment of characters; in other environments, avatars may be customized from head to toe (or horn to claw, depending on the body they select; Nowak & Rauh, 2006). The mere process of customization empowers the user to make specific decisions on how they wish to appear to others (Boellstorff, 2008; Taylor, 2002). The ability to design and customize an avatar, combined with the time spent using the avatar, leads users to often develop a strong affinity for an avatar (Lim & Reeves, 2009; Yee, 2006).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Proteus Effect: A form of transformed social interaction wherein the user’s self-representation is modified in a meaningful way and subsequently the user’s behavior conforms to the modified self-representation regardless of the true physical self.

Embodiment: When a user feels that he or she is experiencing an environment within a virtual body.

Identification: The process in which an individual relates to a model (e.g., an avatar) and feels that s/he is similar to the model, which may yield social influence and imitation of the model.

Transformed Social Interaction: Communication that is modified through the unique affordances of virtual technologies.

Doppelgänger: A digital representation, which may be an avatar or an agent, that is designed to photorealistically resemble a user.

Avatar: A digital representation controlled by a human user.

Virtual Environment: A digital space in which a user may interact with virtual objects.

Complete Chapter List

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List of Reviewers
Table of Contents
Rocci Luppicini
Chapter 1
Rocci Luppicini
Human identity and the meaning attached to being human have been shaped throughout human history by the entrenchment of new technologies and the... Sample PDF
The Emerging Field of Technoself Studies (TSS)
Chapter 2
Robert Andrew Dunn
Modern identity has been shaped by technology, which has in turn shaped theories in understanding identity. How one communicates who they are to... Sample PDF
Identity Theories and Technology
Chapter 3
Anna Croon Fors
This chapter is about the ontology of subjects in digitalization. Questions of ontology emerge as a response to contemporary concerns about the ways... Sample PDF
The Ontology of the Subject in Digitalization
Chapter 4
Federica Fornaciari
The goal of this chapter is to suggest theoretical means to address a fundamental question, what strategies do people use when presenting their... Sample PDF
The Language of Technoself: Storytelling, Symbolic Interactionism, and Online Identity
Chapter 5
Luciano L’Abate
This chapter attempts to define and clarify differences among paradigms, theories, and models in communication science according to a hierarchical... Sample PDF
Of Paradigms, Theories, and Models: A Conceptual Hierarchical Structure for Communication Science and Technoself
Chapter 6
Martine Rothblatt
Ethical issues arise with respect to a digitized analog of a person. Such an analog exists when a person transfers an adequate quantity of digitized... Sample PDF
Mindclone Technoselves: Multi-Substrate Legal Identities, Cyber-Psychology, and Biocyberethics
Chapter 7
Alessandro Tomasi
This chapter introduces, using a race as an allegory, three competing conceptions of man, or three ideals, in its relationship to technology, namely... Sample PDF
A Run for your [Techno]Self
Chapter 8
Stephen Marmura
Human identity, whether individual or collective, has always been conditioned by the mode(s) of communication dominant within any given society.... Sample PDF
The Mediation of Identity: Key Issues in Historic Perspective
Chapter 9
The Digital Soul  (pages 157-174)
Daniel Black
Contemporary understandings of the mind are seemingly free from the need for a soul of the kind imagined by Descartes. While for Descartes the soul... Sample PDF
The Digital Soul
Chapter 10
Samuel Wilson, Nick Haslam
Advances in bioscience and biotechnology move faster than our conceptual and ethical understanding of them. These advances may ultimately change... Sample PDF
Reasoning about Human Enhancement: Towards a Folk Psychological Model of Human Nature and Human Identity
Chapter 11
Ana-Cristina Ionescu
The realities of our world are imperatively legitimated by the complex relationship between media, technology, and society. Whether we deal with old... Sample PDF
Cyber Identity: Our Alter-Ego?
Chapter 12
Sara Konrath
The purpose of this chapter is to summarize changes in personality traits that have co-occurred with the rise of new social media, and to evaluate... Sample PDF
The Empathy Paradox: Increasing Disconnection in the Age of Increasing Connection
Chapter 13
Darren D. Chadwick, Chris Fullwood, Caroline J. Wesson
This chapter provides insight into the nature of online engagement by people with intellectual disabilities, the extent and quality of this... Sample PDF
Intellectual Disability, Identity, and the Internet
Chapter 14
Jesse Fox, Sun Joo Ahn
Avatars are defined as virtual representations that are controlled by a human user. Commonly, we observe avatars in video and online games, social... Sample PDF
Avatars: Portraying, Exploring, and Changing Online and Offline Identities
Chapter 15
Marlin Bates
In the rhetorical construction of identity, we are often tasked with analyzing how rhetoric either points to or creates a space for identity. This... Sample PDF
The Ur-Real Sonorous Envelope: Bridge between the Corporeal and the Online Technoself
Chapter 16
Nelly Elias
This chapter analyzes how the need to preserve ethnic identity and affiliation with one’s homeland is expressed and fulfilled through Internet use... Sample PDF
Immigrants’ Internet Use and Identity from an Intergenerational Perspective: Immigrant Senior Citizens and Youngsters from the Former Soviet Union in Israel
Chapter 17
William Sims Bainbridge
It is possible at the present time to create virtual representations of deceased loved ones, and inhabit them as a way of expressing reverence and... Sample PDF
Ancestor Veneration Avatars
Chapter 18
Rabindra Ratan
There is currently a need for a standardized concept that describes how relationships between the self and virtual self-representations operate... Sample PDF
Self-Presence, Explicated: Body, Emotion, and Identity Extension into the Virtual Self
Chapter 19
Sylvia Söderström
This chapter investigates the significance of assistive ICT as a tool in young disabled people’s identity negotiations. To analyse the impact of... Sample PDF
Assistive ICT and Young Disabled Persons: Opportunities and Obstacles in Identity Negotiations
Chapter 20
Fernando Andacht
This chapter studies the notion of technoself in a contemporary media phenomenon, reality television. How can we explain the attraction of the... Sample PDF
The Tangible Lure of the Technoself in the Age of Reality Television
Chapter 21
Antonio García-Gómez
This chapter examines social networking sites from a sociological and discursive perspective in order to highlight how users engage with them in the... Sample PDF
Technoself-Presentation on Social Networks: A Gender-Based Approach
Chapter 22
Chaka Chaka
This chapter seeks to explore the role played by mobile social networks (MoSoNets) in mediating and constituting, and in helping digitize and... Sample PDF
Digitization and Consumerization of Identity, Culture, and Power among Gen Mobinets in South Africa
Chapter 23
Jimmy Sanderson
This chapter explores how rookie athletes in Major League Baseball (MLB), the National Basketball Association (NBA), National Football League (NFL)... Sample PDF
Stepping into the (Social Media) Game: Building Athlete Identity via Twitter
Chapter 24
José Carlos Ribeiro, Tarcízio Silva
This chapter discusses the use of social applications in the process of the constitution of the self and the production of the self-presentation in... Sample PDF
Self, Self-Presentation, and the Use of Social Applications in Digital Environments
Chapter 25
Li Jin
The study of self-concept is essential in the fields of psychology, education, and for society in general, whilst self-concept is widely valued as a... Sample PDF
A New Trend in Education: Technoself Enhanced Social Learning
Chapter 26
Rachel Barker
The realisation that social networks in cyberspace create a different virtual setting where a Technoself can be created by the way an individual... Sample PDF
Social Networking and Identity
Chapter 27
Victor Ho
This chapter discusses the construction of personal identities by individuals of the same rank through the discourse they constructed while engaging... Sample PDF
The Need for Identity Construction in Computer-Mediated Professional Communication: A Community of Practice Perspective
Chapter 28
Jason Hawreliak
Winston Churchill famously asserted that “there is nothing more exhilarating than to be shot at without result.” Whether or not this is accurate, it... Sample PDF
“To Be Shot at Without Result”: Gaming and the Rhetoric of Immortality
Chapter 29
Derek McColl, Goldie Nejat
This chapter presents a real-time robust affect classification methodology for socially interactive robots engaging in one-on-one... Sample PDF
A Human Affect Recognition System for Socially Interactive Robots
Chapter 30
Francesc Ballesté, Carme Torras
Recent developments in social robotics, intelligent prosthetics, brain-computer interfaces, and implants pose new questions as to the effects of... Sample PDF
Effects of Human-Machine Integration on the Construction of Identity
Chapter 31
Gail F. Melson
This chapter focuses on how the technoself develops in children through relationships with a “personal” robot technology, robotic pets, especially... Sample PDF
Building a Technoself: Children’s Ideas about and Behavior toward Robotic Pets
Chapter 32
Julie Carpenter
This chapter provides a critical analysis of the potential short- and long-term cultural, emotional, and ethical outcomes facing Explosive Ordnance... Sample PDF
Just Doesn’t Look Right: Exploring the Impact of Humanoid Robot Integration into Explosive Ordnance Disposal Teams
Chapter 33
Fotios Papadopoulos, Kerstin Dautenhahn, Wan Ching Ho
This book chapter describes the implementation, testing, and evaluation of the first prototype of the “AIBOcom” system, which allows remote users to... Sample PDF
Behavioral Analysis of Human-Human Remote Social Interaction Mediated by an Interactive Robot in a Cooperative Game Scenario
Chapter 34
Kristi Scott
This chapter examines the cinematic representations of identity in Blade Runner, Bicentennial Man, and A.I. Artificial Intelligence. It looks at the... Sample PDF
The Human-Robot Continuum of Self: Where the Other Ends and Another Begins
Chapter 35
Yuji Sone
This chapter discusses Japanese roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro’s performance experiments with robotic machines (humanoid and android) as a case study... Sample PDF
Robot Double: Hiroshi Ishiguro’s Reflexive Machines
Chapter 36
Erica Orange
The author presents an overview of how the ubiquitous nature of technology has led to a monumental shift in human evolution – a change involving... Sample PDF
Understanding the Human-Machine Interface in a Time of Change
Chapter 37
Marc A. Saner, Jeremy Geelen
This chapter provides a framework for the Technoself that distinguishes six different processes by which emerging technologies may affect human... Sample PDF
Identity in a Technological Society: Governance Implications
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