Goffman’s Introduction presents the dramaturgical presentation of self, a seminal theory in the communication field. It suggests that every aspect of interaction has a specific purpose, even if that conducting subconsciously. Passiveness, appearance, even “the rapidity with which a visitor lifted his fork or spoon to his mouth” (Goffman, 1959, p. 7) – these apparently minor actions all convey enormous amounts of information to other interaction participants.

Our self-presentation is just as complex as a Broadway production.

In a virtual world, individuals have fewer of the communicative signals that Goffman described. For example, online interactions lack the complexity in timing and tone of face-to-face conversation; the wealth of signals from observing others’ facial expressions; and the impressions given off by others’ clothing, posture, and demeanor. As a result, the few signals that are available constitute all of the impression an avatar is giving off. In other words: avatar appearance is everything.

Yee’s research also recalls the chilling Stanford prison (or Zimbardo) experiment, where random individuals took on assigned guard/prisoner roles and fleshed out their identities to a disturbing extent.

Yee & Bailenson extend this idea to show how avatars influence given-off impressions, but also influence the avatar’s behavior itself. Just as a 1988 study demonstrated how wearing a black uniform caused both observers and the uniform-wearers to assign “tough, mean, and aggressive” characteristics to the wearers, one’s avatar choice has implications for their behavior and the behavior of those around them.

"Should I tell him what a ridiculous impression he's giving off?"

“Should I tell him what a ridiculous impression he’s giving off?”

The state of video chatting in today’s online environment demonstrates current attitudes and beliefs in virtual interaction. In my experience, despite more bandwidth, better cameras, and the ubiquity of the internet, video chatting is not a preferred method of interaction for many. I almost never engage in video chatting, and rarely see others doing so. This speaks to peoples’ familiarity with lower-context forms of communication – e-mail, IM, the telephone. Interactional partners in these types of interactions are often represented by an avatar or icon. However, in video chatting, so much more information is received – the impression given off has so much more detail – and it seems people are not fully comfortable receiving it in a virtual context. Thus, less rich, avatar-invoking communication is often preferred.