The concept of the avatar existed long before the internet was even a thought at the back of the mind of Tim Berners Lee. It comes from the Hindu religion, founded millennia before the birth of Jesus. The term avatar comes from the Sanskrit ‘avatāra’. It connotes the sense of descending downwards across the boundaries between different worlds. In Hinduism, an avatar is the incarnation of a deity on Earth.
This resonance carries on into our modern and Western interpretation of the word. However, instead of the abstraction creating material, our material selves manifest immaterially in abstraction. Avatars are our way of inserting ourselves into the digital landscape. Avatars allow gamers to feel immersed in the virtual world. The avatar has been utilised in social media over the past few years, too; platforms such as Snapchat and iCloud messaging being the most notable.
Although we dictate every aspect of our avatars, they often say a lot about us, too. So much so that researchers are studying human behaviour masked by avatars in these virtual worlds. Professor Shaowen Bardzell of Indiana University spent two years using ‘two years of ethnographic observation, interviews, and artefact analysis to explore the communities springing up on online gaming sites. Her area of focus was on the BDSM subculture of Second Life. She says this of it: ‘BDSM fantasy in Second Life is far more than a sexual pastime... I am more than ever convinced that all subcultures have the capacity to incubate innovation in user-created content, and BDSM is successful particularly because of its combination of a potent visual language and the intense personal desires it stirs.’
Avatars give us the courage to model our lives not as they are but rather as we hope them to be. My Apple ID has a decorative gold tooth I wouldn't dare get. But what does this say of those who use avatar gaming to replicate the lives they already live? Are they boring? Do they lack the ability to fantasise? Or perhaps they just want to draw a little patch on the internet and call it their own.
So where are avatars taking us? One of the most famous avatars outside of gaming right now is one of the first virtual Instagram influencers, Miquela Sousa; also known as Lil Miquela ( @lilmiquela ). Lil Miquela is a computer-generated girl who does it all. She models makes music and wears all the latest apparel from brands such as Supreme and Chanel. Her creator (could we call them mother?) is the enigmatic Brud, a start-up which is a ‘transmedia studio that creates digital character-driven story worlds’, so their Instagram bio reads.
Lil Miquela may be a creation of a Los Angeles-based start-up, but through her bold-faced artifice, she shows us what it means and what it takes to be an influencer. We are confronted with what we evidently praise: an apparently nonchalant lifestyle spent between two of the most expensive cities in the world, Los Angeles and New York, exclusively decked in beautiful clothes and, of course, the typically relatable captions on each posts — with some brilliant robot witticisms interspersed. Not to mention her most important and obvious attribute, her sheer uniqueness: before Lil Miquela, many would not have dreamed of a digital influencer, nor saw the point.
The freedom that avatars bring to their users is also vested in the anonymity the avatar can afford them. With an upcoming generation where more children aspire to be Youtube vloggers than astronauts, the prospect of the avatar democratises the social media playing field; it is no longer necessary to have won the genetic lottery nor to have the time and money to travel internationally and buy luxury brands. In fact, this new form of influencers opens doors to collaboration, as is the case with Brud, which means increased creativity and accountability: areas in which some influencers leave much to be desired.
As we see in Lil Miquela’s case, these projects can also be effectively monetised. Avatars allow their creator to breach new territories, especially in youth subcultures and “aesthetics”. These aesthetics not only insert the avatar into the sorting hat that is the algorithm, they also are a great indicator of the kind of demographic a marketer could reach by collaborating with the avatar. With all creative innovations, there comes the question of the effect that monetisation can have on these artistic pursuits. After all, the influencer marketing is a multi-billion dollar industry worldwide. In all likelihood, it will cause an increase in and wider variety of the digital influencers we will see on our screens. But this will also mostly be a good thing because there are teams of highly skilled and highly talented artists and designers working behind these avatars. By monetising the social media accounts of avatars, we are providing new and viable jobs for digital creatives. These Instagram profiles show the work and craft of highly-trained individuals rather than the fortuitous rise of another teenager-gone-viral.
Monetising avatars means confronting what makes the human image marketable. The influence of profit in the creation of avatars will force us to get honest about what we believe to be beautiful, ideal, and stylish. Is it likely that we will see any disabled digital influencers in the future? Ones with acne? Or one’s that do not fit our Eurocentric standard of beauty? If avatars give us free rein to design the perfect being to market to the masses, the onus will be put on the consumer to challenge the images that digital influencers and companies present to them. Perhaps avatars could change how we view beauty.
In any case, as digital worlds grow exponentially and the realm of possibility expands with it, something must be said for our desire to see our images within it. Avatars enable us to fantasise and imagine through them, and this extended realm of possibility is immensely freeing. We have oddly come in a full circle in the modern era, where we have rejected gods, and yet made little gods of ourselves.