Visual cues, appearance, and interactions with others are a part of our socially constructed identity. As Goffman puts it, if a person project themselves to be a certain kind of person, they essentially ask others to treat them as that sort of person. For example, in high school I dyed my hair black, wore shirts with punk band logos, and wore out pair after pair of black Chuck Taylor Converse sneakers. Some people considered me to be a participant in the punk or ska genre of music. At concerts, my interactions with others took on a specific role, and within this role was a set of rules. In a mosh pit, it can be dangerous but fun and most participants try to look out for one another despite the term “punk”. If someone was dancing violently, a human wall would push itself away from the violent moves and create a barrier so if someone did get hit by a dancer; it was someone who placed themselves at the front of the wall. Without punk-style appearance, such rules may not exist and instead we might be seated or modestly swaying from side to side in time with the music. Outside of a concert venue, I would get called names like “Mortisha” or “That punk chick”. If they had a conversation with me they might realize that I was basically a pacifist that used punk music as a way to get aggression out without hurting anyone. But because of my visual appearance, I still get referred to by these names years later, and thus it has become a form of my identity.
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The forms of personal representation that are missing from online interactions include a lot of context cues as well as reality based embodiments. More prominently, in avatar based platforms, the attractiveness level of the avatar may be missing the realistic representation of its owner. For example, in real life, I am awkward, nerdy, and full of imperfections. My Second Life avatar is flawless, and as I learn to better control her she becomes much less awkward, which I wish were the same for real life me. When I say something like, “I like you.” on Second Life, it may be interpreted many different ways, where if I said it in real life, from context cues it would be easy to tell if I mean I like you as a friend, I like you romantically, or anywhere in between.
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In the case of the use of avatars, Yee and Bailenson suggest that the nature of virtual interaction influences how individuals respond to one another by studying interactions between attractive avatars. Their study affirms that those who are considered more attractive will have more self-disclosure and closer interpersonal distance due to the Proteus Effect. Therefore, if an avatar is attractive, its owner may act more attractive by creating closer interpersonal distance or disclosing more information, and if an avatar is less attractive they may do so less. In my own experience, individuals respond more favorably to outgoing but not invasive approaches to virtual communication. I personally will not respond to anyone online that I do not know in person, but friends of mine are willing to converse with strangers as long as they have a decent appearance, and don’t say anything too creepy.
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