As the Internet shifts from a world of primarily text-based interactions to one dominated by graphical stimuli, digital visuality and its role in online communication become more significant. The popularization of AIM buddy icons is one example of this trend. In her book, Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures of the Internet, Lisa Nakamura explores the growth of AIM buddy icons during the early 2000s and their relationship to users’ racial identities. AIM buddy icons support person-to-person communication by aligning a visual image with a person’s identity, such as an animated female character or a famous celebrity photo that may indicate certain pop culture interests. Avatars “convey a sense of style, identity, and community” (Nakamura, 46) for the user and allows them to construct an online self founded on these principles.
But there are not only racial motivations behind avatar decisions. As graphics and symbols become a more integral part of digital subcultures, taking precedence over text-based interactions, the need to construct one’s identity through visuals increases. The multi-user dimension game Neopets demonstrates this shift through its avatar-centered forums, also known as Neoboards. The multi-user virtual environment site, which allows users to design mythical pets and guide them on adventures through the fictional world of Neopia, provides an arena for users to interact through these discussion pages. Users on the Neoboards not only equip their comments with personalized signatures but also, avatars, which unlike AIM buddy icons, can be earned through the completion of certain tasks, games, or interactions. While some tasks are simple, such as clicking on a specific webpage or beating a game, others require more effort or experience.
By equating a particular avatar with an action and a degree of difficulty required to complete that action, Neopets encourages users to construct digital identities through the attainment and display of specialized avatars. In this way, avatars become not just a signifier of racial allegiance but a declaration of social status within an online subculture.
This visual representation of status is nothing new, of course. In his study of social networks, Hugo Liu explains how users of social network sites like Facebook use interest tokens (“markers of taste and social identity” such as TV shows and music artists) to craft a “taste performance” that will appeal to a certain group of individuals (Liu 255). One person may include opera and jazz to indicate their “cultured” status while another may list death metal to gain the acceptance of “cool” groups. In other words, the use of a digital profile to indicate social status has been around since the inception of social networking.
What Neopets does is combine the interactivity of networks with gaming. In doing so, the avatar becomes a symbol for social status, a visual representation of Liu’s “interest tokens,” commodified objects.
The commodification of these avatars can be seen in the different “types” of avatars one can earn. According to an article published by The Neopian Times (similar to The Whyville Times of Whyville.net) avatars can be used in a number of ways:
Interests/Skills: The user, pianoru, suggests that avatars can show “who you are” by displaying a picture or character that reflects your interests. Some avatars on the site can only be attained by beating an opponent in a Neopet fight or completing a difficult game in the arcade. Displaying these avatars, then, acts as a form of “bragging rights.” Like putting certain music artists on your Facebook profile to represent yourself in a particular light, setting your avatar on Neopets can act as a form of self-authoring, a way of constructing an identity that fits your desired status or image.
Rebellion: Some users choose not to display an avatar at all, sticking with the original “default” picture as a sort of “rebellion.” In doing so, these users may be mistaken for “newbies” and could be mistreated by members of the site, similar to those users in Whyville.net who were called “tators” (Kafai 6).
Avatar Collection: In her paper on Friendster, Danah Boyd discusses the rise of “Collectors,” users who would purposefully “friend” as many people as possible in order to create the most wide-reaching network, and thus the more “respected” profile. This idea takes shape in Neopets through Avatar Collectors. Using avatar-themed discussion boards to research potential avatar options and interact with other enthusiasts, avatar collectors aim to collect as many avatars as possible to achieve a higher social rank on the site (more avatars = more respect). In order to do so, such users enter an avatar subculture defined by trading, sharing, and discussing how to collect certain images. (For example, if an avatar requires that you have a certain item in your inventory, you might go to these message boards and ask if you could borrow this item from another person for the sake of earning the avatar. Users who lend such items can set a price or can give out the goods for free, thus creating a digital marketplace.)
What is different between AIM buddy icons and Neopets avatars, though, is that the latter does not offer users the option to create their own image. Users cannot “circumvent the cultural gatekeepers” (Nakamura 54) by participating in the production of these avatars. Rather, they fall into the trap of the Internet’s interface, which provides users multiple pathways through hyperlinks to allow them to think they’re in control of their actions. While they can create their own content in other ways, like by purchasing (with real money) add-ons to their main “Neopet” character and their “Neohome,” the image that dominates their communication with others cannot be manipulated.
So while user can construct their identity online through the representation of race in their avatar, they may also attempt to represent their social status through such images and leverage that status in online social interactions.
Featured image via Flickr.
boyd, danah. 2006. “Friends, Friendsters, and MySpace Top 8: Writing Community Into Being on Social Network Sites.” First Monday 11:12, December. Kafai, Yasmin. "“Blacks Deserve Bodies Too!” Design and Discussion about Diversity and Race in a Teen Virtual World." Authors & Digital Games Research Association: n. pag. Print. Liu, Hugo. "Social Network Profiles as Taste Performances." Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication (2008): n. pag. Print. Nakamura, Lisa. Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures of the Internet. N.p.: Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2007. Print.