Imagine you are walking down the street in New York City. You come across a man with a baby, a woman with her boobs up to her nose and hot pink lips, an androgynous gothic person, and an individual dressed as Elmo. It is very likely that if you were to approach each of these persons, you would handle the situations and conversations in different ways. The personal identities of these people are reinforced as they interact with people who understand their image. The gothic person dresses in all black so that they can be recognized in a certain way by other people of that stereotype. A father with their baby may be more comfortable with hanging out with other new fathers rather than the bachelor who loves to go out and party and so on. As Goffman says in the reading, “We live by inference” (p. 3) meaning that based on inferences we have about a person, we have assumptions of how this person will act, but we do not know for sure. The same goes for the online/avatar context as face to face interactions.
Elements of personal representation that are missing from online interactions are the legitimacy of the situation. In an online world, both verbal and nonverbal cues and gestures are nonexistent. In an interaction with an individual face to face, so many inferences are developed through these essential cues. What we see through Second Life avatars is a projected self-image that has been strategically manipulated to create desired situations, interactions and boosted self-confidence. As mentioned in Yee and Bailenson’s study, “As we choose our self-representations in virtual environments, our self-representations shape our behaviors in turn. These changes happen not over hours or weeks but within minutes“ (p. 287). As soon as we create the curvy, long-legged avatar in skimpy clothing, our behaviors are immediately transformed from whatever persona we carry in the real world, to a flirtatious and overall more confident avatar.
The nature of virtual interaction influences how individuals respond to one another because everyone in the situation understands what is happening. According to Yee and Bailenson, “The notion of transforming our appearances permeates our culture” (p. 271). It is understood that the avatar you are interacting with online, most likely does not look quite like that in real life.
Elmo Image: gameraboy via Tumblr
Goth image: Groteleur via Tumblr
Gif: whatshouldwecallarttherapy via Tumblr