Making face: avatars in everyday media

From the time I woke to the time I sat down at my office desk this morning, I counted 24 different social interactions, both face-to-face and mediated by technology. Each one of these interactions required me to make an assumption or rely on known etiquette, in the absence of knowing the true state of affairs. I had many questions, and their answers were not directly perceivable: Is she friendly? Is he going to be trustworthy? Does he remember how I like my coffee, or do I have to tell him again? Will she get the assignment in on time?

In our everyday social interactions, we use a natural, unspoken currency to exchange information that often goes unstated but dictates much of how we interpret behavior: our face. Erving Goffman, in his seminal essay “On Face-Work,” defined face as the social value a person claims through patterns of verbal and non-verbal acts: an image of one’s self. “Face-work,” as he describes it, is the actions taken by a person to make whatever he is doing consistent with his “face.” A person, then, establishes a line by which he can communicate during any particular contact, whether face-to-face or mediated. Today businesses are distributed differently, global collaborations among people are more prevalent, and social interactions have different meanings. But that doesn’t mean face matters less. In fact, its definition may have gotten more interesting.

As I sit here typing, I count at least six open applications where I must interpret a version of face to which Goffman was referring, most noticeably represented by an avatar. And an avatar, as it happens, is fraught with both social value and perceived meaning by the person using it and the person interpreting it.

The avatar descent

See also:
Article in its entirety “Making Face: Practices and Interpretations of Avatars in Everyday Media” in May/June Interactions

Avatar,” which is derived from the Sanskrit word for “descent,” is a user’s self-representation, whether in the form of a three-dimensional model used in computer games, a two-dimensional icon used in online communities, or a text construct found on early systems such as MUDs. It is an object representing the embodiment of the user that can also refer to the personality connected with the screen name, or handle, of an Internet user.

Neal Stephenson, author of cyberpunk novel Snow Crash, most likely popularized the term in 1992, using avatar to mean “online virtual bodies.” But it wasn’t until 1996, when America Online introduced buddy icons with its free version of instant messaging, that avatars became more widespread. Yahoo! was the first to adopt the official “avatar” name for its own instant messaging service. Now with Automattic’s Gravatar (globally recognized avatar) service, which allows people to have one avatar across multiple sites, millions of avatar images have been served billions of times per day since its official launch in 2007 (before that, Gravatars were unmaintained).

Add content, mix signals

See also:
“Sometimes I just sit and stare at the avatars in Tweetdeck. It’s fascinating to see how people represent themselves.” —Joshua Porter

When someone gives you mixed signals, it’s difficult to know what to read. He is agreeing to the project, but frowning. She is shaking her head, but saying yes. What happens when an avatar, the visual representation of a person’s expression, is paired with content contrary to his statement? Consider a passive statement communicated by an aesthetically aggressive avatar. What about an angry message communicated by a sheepish avatar? Or a snide, biting comment delivered by a sweet, charming avatar? An analysis by OKCupid revealed that dating-profile pictures that showed people doing something (e.g., with animals, travel photos) generated substantially more interesting conversations. Does the visual instance change the impact of the message on its receiver?

Those of us who have been working with social tools have taken for granted that we understand the juxtaposition of avatar and content. We get it, we think. There’s an assumption that because we’re fluent with digital tools — because we’re comfortable with flowing in and out of the complex information landscape of networked media — that a small detail such as how to read the image of a face or a body — the most familiar, it might seem, of all human attributes — should not be difficult to parse. Yet we’ve seen messages misinterpreted, information missed, cues questioned, and we’re left puzzled. We’re not seeing the whole picture, so to speak.

As choosers of avatars, we’re one step removed from a face-to-face interaction, not considering the connection between face and message we would otherwise. Is the chance for mixed signals higher? What motivates users then to change or not change their avatars, and what effect does it have on how their content gets interpreted?

More work

There’s etiquette at play both in face-to-face communications and via digital presentation of self with respect to face-work. In digital environments, the direct relationship between face and message is often disconnected. While there is direct control over one’s “face,” that control takes manual labor. Social tools — instant messenger, Facebook, Twitter, to name a few — have avatars that are, by default, static. The access to change requires the user to go through the non-delicate process of uploading an image.

Making meaning

When a person is able to represent herself within media, at least within a virtual world, it fundamentally changes the psychology of interactive technology. Research shows that even though all the action is within a virtual world, people’s hearts beat faster, and the areas of the brain that regulate social interactions are more engaged — people care how their avatars are treated.

How will the mix of image and message further proliferate through everyday life? Will the image stand for the message or will face work still be work? What will be socially acceptable, and will new etiquettes emerge in segments that cross personal, professional, and mixed boundaries? These are all questions whose answers are emerging as I type alongside the digital expressions of strangers and colleagues. But I do feel confident that the Goffman of today might be in agreement with Errol Morris, who recently said, “I’d rather be an avatar than see ‘Avatar.’”

Thanks to Josh for avatar-ial editorial consultation.

Article written as part of column for Interactions Magazine ©ACM. This is an abbreviated version of the work and my version of it. It is posted here with permission by ACM. Full version in issue: XVII.3 – May / June, 2010 » Making Face: Practices and Interpretations of Avatars in Everyday Media