Avatars, Profile Pics, and the Visual Representation of Self-image

What does your profile picture say about you? What about your avatar?

A little while ago Ben Myers shared some thoughts towards the development of a Theology of the Avatar in a post titled Once more on the self in cyberspace: a theology of avatars. He suggests that the visual representation of ourselves online – whether it is the profile picture we choose or the 2 or 3D avatar that represents us – is not a mere representation but rather an extension of ourselves. This distinction has some powerful implications; although they may not be the kind of implications all of us would be completely comfortable with.

Why did you choose the profile picture you use? What are you trying to say? Are you trying to say anything at all? Do you use different avatars in different online contexts?

Ben Myers thinks you are and, frankly, so do I. Wes also wrote about a post about theodrama, facebook and Twitter last week, titled Performing Life on a Virtual Stage.

It is a fact of life that with different people and in different situations we present different aspects of our selves. While I believe that ultimately our characters shine through (for good or ill) in every situation I think reality suggests that the characteristics of specific relationships conditions those features of ourselves that are foregrounded in any given situation. Otherwise, the idea of “world’s colliding” would not be so apparent to us – that slightly exhilarating (and sometimes slightly uncomfortable) feeling of different parts of our lives coalescing.

While I have had little exposure to the full experience of Second Life it appears that the creation of an avatar to 3 dimensionally (on a flat screen) represent oneself in that world incorporates a range of judgements. Is this a representation of who we think we are? who we would like to be, or look like? or a metaphoric representation of self-perception rather than the result of an attempt to be literal. Those previously hidden and repressed desires or sense of self that find an expression in the “extension” of self within virutal environments offer insight into how one wishes to present themselves to that community.

On a similar track (though not directly on point) is Alan Noble’s discussion over at Christ and Pop Culture in a post titled My Online Image: Facebook, Twitter, and Privacy. Alan explores whether we should share just because we can. As always the discussion that follows the post is thought-provoking.


1 Comment

  • Jim says:

    Thanks for this fascinating post! I found this sentence to be especially interesting:

    “Those previously hidden and repressed desires or sense of self that find an expression in the “extension” of self within virutal environments offer insight into how one wishes to present themselves to that community.”

    Just a couple of thoughts: First, are ‘expression’ and ‘extenstion’ synonymous or different? It seems to me that, at least in one respect, they are different. Expression seems to connote a stronger connection between a person’s mental state and the thing that is expressed. Self-expression is an attempt to realize one’s inner self in an outward form. Extension, by contrast, seems more like ‘trying on clothing’ or extending one’s sense of self (or body) to include things that were previously not included within or extrinsic to one’s self. Extension might be thought of as more like the act of indwelling rather than the appearance of one’s self in something external to one’s self. Expression seems to lend itself to analysis that seeks to understand the psychology of the one doing the expressing (which Ben Meyers specifically says cannot be done in the case of avatars; his example is attempts to psychologize Jesus).

    Second, can avatars serve equally to hide one’s self as well as to reveal one’s self? Certainly avatars operate in virtual worlds that are (at least for now) fairly distinct from the real, world and so they appear to offer the possibility to be one’s self in a ‘secret’ place. This allows people to engage in behavior they never would in the ‘real’ world, but it also provides the opportunity to hide certain aspects that they do not wish to present. I wonder if it is more important, when we reflect upon our virtual identities, to consider the things we choose to hide rather than the things we choose to present.

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