Why Everyone Needs an Avatar in a "Socially Distant" World
Business & finance professor, digital lawyer, restaurant owner, board member & traveler.
Imagine a future where everyone has a virtual character that they use across multiple platforms. Social media, video conferencing, games, and other online spaces.
A virtual “cartoon” version of you.
So, what would your avatar look like? And how would it behave?
When I ask these questions, the usual response is, “Why should I care? I am not interested in gaming.”
But, the time is fast approaching when we all need to think about and experiment with a virtual version of ourselves.
Everyone cares about how they appear to others — how they look to others and how others judge their actions. And these perceptions, in turn, influence how we look and behave.
Of course, some people are more concerned about appearances. We all have friends or relatives whose lives are driven by a desire to keep up an image of themselves and are afraid of being seen for something else.
But even those people who rebel against appearances, use an “I don’t care” attitude to make a statement.
The result? Human beings spend an enormous amount of time managing their appearance. Thinking — and worrying — about the image they project to others.
And, in this world of “managing appearances,” there are some things we can control, and some things that are much harder — or even impossible — to change. To some extent, I have control over my words, my actions, my hair, or my clothes. Less so, my weight, my eye color, or my height.
Managing appearances is a mixture of destiny (or luck, depending on how you view the universe) and choice.
“What should I wear?”
“What should I do?”
“What will others think?”
Such constrained choices have been a fact of life throughout human history. Even the earliest human beings were social creatures. A concern with such questions of appearance and the management of appearance is an essential part of what it is to be human.
How we appear to others gives us an identity — it is vital to who we are as a unique person. And so, the management of appearances defines what it means to be an individual. It preoccupies us and fills much of our time. It determines our mood and drives the choices that we make.
And, I suspect, nothing ever changed much. Until now.
So, what has changed? What is different about now?
In short? The new virtual spaces that we increasingly inhabit as a result of social distancing.
From Online Meetings to Virtual Worlds to the Metaverse
Many people are now working remotely. There is no choice. I am one of them. All my meetings and classes have moved online. Virtual conferencing tools have become the new normal.
Zoom stated in April that they have 300 million daily meeting participants (after first claiming that they had 300 million daily active users).
But the next reality doesn’t stop with online meetings.
People are resourceful and adapt quickly. They figured out that a dream vacation can be “booked” via Nintendo’s Animal Crossing: New Horizons. The game’s virtual island is a perfect place to meet with family and friends and socialize. It even appears to be a perfect venue for a date. The first virtual weddings on Nintendo’s platform are also already reported.
Unsurprisingly, the game that was only recently released has already taken Nintendo’s top-selling charts by storm.
And what to make of rapper Travis Scott’s virtual concert on Fortnite? More than twelve million people logged in to watch “his” performance.
The opportunities are limitless. Games have become so much more than just games. They are fast becoming the new spaces for all kinds of social activity. The coronavirus just fast-tracked this development.
More and more concerts and other big events will go virtual. The virtual world is quickly becoming the next big thing. Traditional industries cannot stay behind. For instance, if I were in charge of an airline or travel agency, I would look into the possibility of offering virtual holidays/journeys now.
And the real game-changer is when these virtual worlds start connecting. This is the vision of the future of Fortnite creator — and CEO of Epic Games — Tim Sweeney. He talks of “inter-operable ecosystems.” The next-generation Internet. The much fabled metaverse.
The rise of such virtual spaces was happening anyway. But social distancing has massively accelerated the future. More and more of us will become part of this rapidly emerging world.
So, I am not talking about a “character” for a single game. Nor am I talking about an online presence — a Facebook page or Instagram account. I am talking about a “virtual you” that operates across multiple platforms — your manifestation in a fast-emerging digital world. Because this is where we are heading.
And this is where your avatar comes in. To become visible, to participate, you need to create a cartoon version of yourself.
Digital Technologies + Social Distancing = The Next Reality
We are at the dawn of a new reality, and this transforms how we manage our appearance.
Managing the appearance of our virtual selves will become as important as managing our real selves. Instead of looking in the mirror, we will be checking our computers to see if our avatar looks good. We will want our avatar to make a good impression and worry about how “it” behaves.
Avatars aren’t only for gamers anymore. Having an online self isn’t just for people who feel more comfortable in the virtual world. We will all need an avatar to participate in this new digital reality.
These virtual characters will become an essential part of “managing appearance.” They become our virtual identities. Our brands.
Take online meetings. More and more people are already playing with their backgrounds. I noticed people started with the obvious backgrounds. Bookshelves for a meeting. Balloons for a party.
Quickly, however, people started playing with the possibilities and the freedom that virtual spaces offer. I notice more abstract events, for example. Or counter-intuitive ones — a beach background for holding an office meeting, for instance.
These more personalized backgrounds are the first step in creating a brand and expressing a unique identity.
But, online conferencing tools are being superseded by other possibilities. More and more of my colleagues are already thinking about experimenting with virtual reality sessions. It’s a great way to interact in a lockdown. It is a glimpse into the future.
And this is where things start to get interesting. Participants must experiment with a digital avatar, and the question thus arises: What should my avatar look like? What do I want to represent me in a virtual world? Who do I want to be?
And there is no simple answer. Nobody knows what’s right. You have to find what works for you.
Again, there are endless options. The constraints that limited the possibilities of managing appearances matter far less now. There is a new freedom in how we look and how we behave.
You can create an avatar that doesn’t resemble you at all — a purely imaginative figure. You can come up with a completely different avatar — somebody you aspire to be.
But I have the impression that a completely fake avatar doesn’t work in the long run. Somehow it must be authentic.
The reason is that in a socially-distant society, the real world and virtual world will not be separated. The boundaries will be fluid and the two worlds will interact. This will happen faster than you think.
Real world appearances, approaching a person (and making a strong impression), has taken on a new meaning over the last couple of months. It’s like we have been reprogrammed. We don’t approach persons anymore with a firm handshake, etc. We keep a distance or avoid them entirely. We still make eye-contact, but mainly to see who is going to step aside.
That’s why our appearance in the virtual world will become so important. We should feel comfortable with our avatars. You control your avatar. But it appears to go both ways. Your avatar also “controls” you. Your virtual identity complements you but can also inspire you. It has the power to change you.
So, start thinking about how you will manage your digital identity in a socially distant, virtual future. Because this is the next reality.
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