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Avatars and Me: Mulling Over Online Identity

Avatars and Me: Mulling Over Online Identity

Written by Kevin Hodgson
February 04, 2011

I’ve been taking part in the 2011 Edublog Teacher Challenge as a way to look at my blog and my online identity from various angles. As a regular blogger, I don’t do that enough. I just write, and post. One of the activities that allowed me some space to reflect centered on how we use avatars to visually represent ourselves in the online world. I’ve gone through avatars over the years — updating, deleting, adding — without much forethought. The challenge activity forced me to step back and wonder about the choices that I have made with avatars.

And I think choice is a key word here. We choose how the ways in which we project ourselves into our various online worlds. The “browse picture file” link that is almost always under your profile page is where we make that choice, and yet, I can’t say that I have spent more than a few minutes wondering if “this image is right for this space” or “how does this image protect or project my identity?”

So, I did a little avatar time-traveling for this activity.

The first avatar I ever used was an image of my old dog, Bella. I figured that since my nickname was dogtrax (whose origins is a much longer story having to do with football and music), having a dog as my avatar made sense. And she was a beautiful dog, so I enjoyed seeing her image on my posts. I think, at the time, I was also erecting some protective walls around identity, even though I don’t remember being too conscious of that, and my dog didn’t reveal a thing about me, really. She was just my beautiful dog.

Later, as I moved into some Ning Social Networking Spaces, I shifted to an avatar image that I have of me playing guitar with my old band, The Sofa Kings. It’s a picture from when we went into the recording studio. I liked how it captured my love of music and my identity of being in a rock and roll band. So why move to this in Ning? I think it was because I understood I was moving into a network of real people (the first Ning space I entered was Classroom 2.0) and I wanted to be a real person, too. I didn’t want to hide behind my dog. I also didn’t want just a headshot. I wanted something that said a little about who I am. The guitar in my had did that.

These days, I am more apt to use a drawing I made myself in MS Paint. It’s pretty basic, but it seems comfortable to me. I got tired of seeing myself in an image as my avatar, and I think the beauty of the avatar idea is that we can switch it, make changes. The self-portrait is not really me (maybe a younger version of me, with more hair) but I like that I drew it myself, with my own hands (mouse) and I see it and think, yep, that’s me. In the past year, I find myself slowly moving to this avatar on many sites, including the ones I use with my students.

But I also periodically tinker with various art sites, just to see what kind of avatar I can make. I’ve been Simpsonized, and turned into a clay person. I’ve re-arranged the perception of my face with a Picasso-style creator. I’ve been shrunk down into a Lego. Some, I like. Others, not so much. But I keep them in a file called “headshots” on my computer. You never know when I might want to make a change of identity.

In general, I guess folks have to think about how they want to use an avatar: is it for flash, for fun, for privacy or for something else? There are certainly tons of avatar makers out there now, and it is always good to take a step back and consider how it is that we represent ourselves to the online world. And when we talk to our students, and work with our students with avatars, it’s a good way to get into visual literacy: what does this picture say to the world? What it is about you that you most want to capture when you create an avatar? And the ease in which we can make the switch of our visual representation means we can easily shed and recreate our online visual identities with a click of a button and swipe of a mouse.

I know some teachers have moved towards multimedia avatars, like Voki. Here, you can add voice and other elements. I’m not a big fan of these animated avatars, though. I find them too disjointed and too odd. Maybe it’s that whole robotic/human element. At Voki, the eyeballs following my mouse just makes me unsettled as a reader, as if some Phillip K. Dick story were unfolding around me.

I prefer a static avatar that talks for me, not to me.

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