Breaking News: Humans Express Themselves Online

In today’s astonishing breaking news update, blithe journalists continue to propagate the research of academics who barely understand online life. I can’t spare the dough to shell out for academic papers the likes of this one, so I’ll have to rely on the NPR health blog’s hot take version:

Your digital avatar gives away more hints about your personality than you might think, according to a study published Friday in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. And that's true even if you craft your avatar to look completely different from you.

“Despite avatars being whatever an individual wants them to be ... that person’s personality can come through and be communicated accurately to others,” Katrina Fong, a Ph.D. student in psychology at York University and lead author of the study, tells Shots. “Who we are in real life does to some extent drive our choices in deciding how to represent ourselves online.”

I already know I’m safe to comment on this paper I haven’t read because that quotation reveals everything. I will grant the author the colloquial meaning of “in real life;” she means the subset of real life that takes place offline. I will grant that even though my entire book, including the title is about undoing that concept.

Even despite that, when someone is surprised by the mere existence of a relationship between “real life” and online self-representation enough to try to prove it exists with research, their findings are going to be the ultimate “Turns out™.”

I have a couple-three suggestions about how to study the meaning of online avatars. First, study avatars on networks people actually use, not WeeWorld. What is WeeWorld? Good question. For our purposes, what matters is that it allows people to create freakish pseudo-humanoid avatars for themselves from templates that do not have noses.

This makes them easier to study, because the permutations of how different they look are constrained, so researchers can easily map the settings to the Big Five personality traits that some other academics came up with in an unrelated study. These constraints also make WeeWorld avatars meaningless with respect to “how to represent ourselves online.”

On the social networks where a significant number of people choose to represent themselves online, their avatars are images of _anything they want_. On WeeWorld, some company has decided — for its own inscrutable reasons — what the constraints of the avatars will be, and its users can only represent themselves within that range. On Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, LinkedIn, etc. etc. etc., people can represent themselves _however they want_ as long as it fits into a square. Which leads me to suggestion number two: use the magical powers of the Fake Life Computer World and collect a huge sample of profile pictures. Believe it or not, computers are _really good_ at collecting thousands and thousands of pictures and figuring out what’s in them. So instead of looking at 99 WeeWorld homunculi, why not collect big chunks of profile pictures from _real_ social networks and figure out what’s in them and how they compare across networks? You can also use the Information Superhighway to ask the survey questions you’ll need to compare somebody’s Real Life to their Fake Life, so, seriously, go to town. Finally, please try to be descriptive, not prescriptive, about ways human beings express themselves. Using predefined personality attributes and only studying the narrow range of noseless human expressions available on WeeWorld is guaranteed to make your gee-whiz study into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Now that there are finally spaces for people to express themselves _without_ the biological and social constraints imposed on them, they’re doing it! Some of them are, at least, and some are not, which makes the choice of _whether to appear human or not_ on the Internet into a fascinating distinction. Why, then, would you intentionally limit a study of that change to the same old categories? I’ll say it again: It’s all real life. It’s all self-expression. All identity is fragmentary, temporary, and constructed. The rules change online, but the human psyche does not. At least, it doesn’t change suddenly, when people sign up for a WeeWorld account. The Internet may very well exert a transformative evolutionary force on the human self, but that happens over the very long term. For now, ~~~in real life,~~~ it is not interesting to wonder _if_ people express their inexorable human nature online. Of course they do. I wonder a LOT about the social games surrounding avatars and profile pictures. I was just asking people about it on Twitter yesterday. My questions are also about how calculated online personas are, and how identity creators and audiences differ in their perceptions of them. It sounds like [this study][2] asked those kinds of questions, but it asked them of the wrong people in the wrong place.

Read more about the study on NPR