Thursday, August 7, 2008

The avatars are taking over the asylum

A version of this piece was published in Marketing in 2008

Over the last few years, the web has come alive with avatars. The word comes from Hindu mythology, where it describes a spirit coming down to earth; and on Second Life, World of Warcraft and dozens of other online worlds, people use these digital representations of themselves to interact with each other.

But digital being digital, these avatars don’t have to look like you, or even look human. Entire subcultures have emerged for non-human avatars, with their own art, literature and websites.

Furries – anthropomorphic animals with human characteristics, Weres (people who claim – mostly spiritually – to be lycanthropes) and Otherkins (elves, ETs, dragons and other fantasy characters) abound, and have even attracted academic interest.

The University of California (there’s nothing surprising in this sentence) looked at the sexual aspects of furry culture, which is certainly evident in Second Life, where things can get quite, well, hairy.

All this might seem pretty bizarre to the average resident of Tunbridge Wells, not to mention the rest of us, and we might have been able to remain comfortably insulated from this other world carrying on somewhere behind our computer screens.

But avatars are set to break out from the games, worlds and chatrooms they live in, and they could be coming to a website or a TV near you.

Second Life and IBM recently announced a collaboration to bring portability to avatars, allowing them to be transported between games and sites, like characters from Eastenders popping up on Coronation Street.

The idea’s already been pioneered by, who have created a social avatar community that’s spreading across the web. Installing a piece of software on your computer, you get an avatar which you can customise to your preference – man, woman, character from Horton Hears a Who – it’s up to you.

Whenever you visit a website, you’ll see your avatar standing at the bottom of the screen – alongside all the avatars of other people visiting the same site. You can wave to them, wousle them (a bit like poking in facebook), chat to them – the idea is to make visiting a website a social phenomenon, rather than a solo one, and it’s revealing.

The average level of conversation is just as banal as most chat rooms, but if you’ve got a website it could be a valuable tool for talking to customers – when was the last time you could hang out in a website and watch others?

And it’s not just the web that’s seeing avatars shaking off the ties that bind them.

On the Nintendo Wii, players can personalise their Mii – their avatar on the game console. But by selecting the right options, they can set it free to wander around. Since Wii can be connected to the internet, this means your character can start turning up in the audience of your friends’ games – when they’re playing tennis, there you are in the crowd. Importantly though, you’re not controlling this – your Mii goes off to find things to do when you’re not playing the game.

As far as I can tell, nobody’s yet figured out what the point of this is, other than curiosity value.

But its significance is clear. We have no sense of shared experience with the web. With TV, we are conscious of the fact that others are watching the same things we watch, because people talk about what they saw on telly the night before. But online there’s no equivalent water cooler moment – and it’s hard to conceive the number of people who see what you see.

But Weblins and Mii gives you a little of that sense – somehow putting a face to the audience, and an idea of their existence.

The rise of social networking whilst rapid has nevertheless been constrained to individual sites. Portable avatars could change that, embedding social activity into every site, and creating an awareness of others in cyberspace that we take for granted in the real world.