If you are a frequent user of social media, you will be aware of the emergence of digital avatars through the likes of Snapchat, Facebook and Instagram. In fact, even if you are not an avid social media user, but have any Apple products, you will have stumbled upon the 2D and 3D Memoji feature in iMessage.
Given most people’s familiarity with avatars nowadays, the exploration into exactly why people resonate so much with creating their own and what that means for them in terms of communication, is still very much on-going.
A good place to start would be in the origins of the avatar (and, no, James Cameron is not their founding father).
Avatars in Gaming
With today’s avatars being a lot more interactive and representative of our personal identities, the origins of the avatar actually stem from the gaming industry in the 80s. Though limited in their customisation options, users could choose from a selection of heads and bodies to create an avatar they felt best suited them in the game. These avatars could then walk around and talk to one another through chat bubbles that would appear above their heads on the screen.
The world was then taken by storm through the unveiling of The Sims in 2000. This provided users with the first opportunity for expansive customisation and therefore it became a lot clearer that the avatars people were creating for themselves were representations of who they best felt suited them and the life they desired to lead in the real world. Given the opportunity to live an alternate life as a Simoleon in SimNation, people were now finding new levels of escapism from the real world; a recurring theme which would come to present itself in all future gaming releases.
Avatars on Social Media
The older generation often berates us by saying we live our lives on social media and pre-2016 we would’ve furrowed our brows in anger as we denied this claim. However, with the release of the Bitmoji on Snapchat, there perhaps is a little more truth to what our elders have been saying than we care to admit.
Snapchat became the first major social media platform to cement their position in the avatar realm through the acquisition of Bitmoji and Bitstrips. This allowed users to now create their own digital avatars visible to themselves and others on the app, with an emphasis on appearance adjustments and digital clothing options. Using these customised Bitmojis as a way of communicating is done in the way of selecting a Bitmoji sticker that represents the activity you are doing/want to do or a certain expression that you wish to convey, and sending it to your Snapchat friends. To get them involved, you can click and hold down on your chosen Bitmoji sticker and select which Snapchat friend you would like to join you on there.
Since the birth of the Bitmoji, other social media giants slowly began to ease their way into avatar creation and rightfully claimed their slice of the pie.
Platforms belonging to the Meta group—Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp—as well as TikTok, now offer users the opportunity to create their own avatars. Facebook launched their customisable avatars in 2020 and, unapologetically nearing an exact replica of the Bitmoji, they come with an even more extensive range of expressions and emotions than their competitors. Facebook issued a statement upon the roll out of these avatars, claiming their purpose to be a new form of self-expression for everyone around the world.
Similarly, those launched on Instagram withhold a plethora of material and physical features, with the app claiming that their roll out of avatars is essentially an “advanced version of The Sims”. The only major difference between the avatar creative process on Instagram in comparison to other apps, is the fact that there is no option for gender selection. Instead users are tasked with expressing their gender identity through their choice of appearance; creating an inclusive experience for all.
Social Media Avatars for Branding
If you are a brand watching all of this ‘avatar malarkey’ unfold, but don’t have an app and aren’t quite sure where you fit in, we’ve got you covered.
With each app’s avatar-creation process offering the user countless different ways to express themselves through clothing, accessories and beauty tidbits, brands are now looking to not only deck real human beings out in their clothes and accessories, but also those in the virtual world.
If you thought real people were flamboyant enough, wait until you meet their avatars.
Take Snapchat as a prime example. Bitmoji fashion is a key feature on the Bitmoji app and collaborates with internationally-renowned designers/brands to bring your avatars the latest and most fashionable outfits to flaunt around the virtual world in. Previous collaborations include Ralph Lauren, Adidas, Converse, Nike, Off White and Levi’s; just to name a few. What’s more, all of these branded clothes are free to dress your bitmoji up in! Who doesn’t love free clothes?
It is fair to say that avatar creation and customisation has come a very long way since its birth, but given today’s technological advancements, we are not entirely convinced that everybody understands just how far avatars have been pushed…
Enter: the Metaverse.
Taking it one step further, Meta group recently revealed its plans to launch the Avatars Store; a virtual store existing within the Metaverse which will allow users of its social platforms to purchase and dress their avatars up in items from designer brands. Brands such as Balenciaga, Prada and Thom Browne are set to partake.
To many this all may seem rather extravagant and unnecessary, however, the intricacies of personal avatar creation breathe a whole new life into the art of self-expression. Sebastian Borget, co-founder of blockchain-based Metaverse project, The Sandbox, describes it as such:
“By leveraging avatars, anyone can express themselves digitally in ways that weren’t possible before. Moreover, truly owning your identity and being able to carry it through an NFT across multiple decentralised applications and virtual worlds is one very concrete and easily understandable example by mainstream audiences”
The Future of Digital Identity in the Metaverse
The Metaverse is coming and these fun, little digital personas are the first piece of the puzzle. While the way its environments will evolve is difficult to determine, industry experts believe that avatars are a key building block for the future of personal identity in the Metaverse.
While we are very much in the early stages of the transition over into the Metaverse, artificially intelligent avatars present on social media give us a sneak peek of what’s to come. Cohabiting what once was solely a space for living, breathing human beings, with virtual avatars allows us to grow accustomed to parasocial interactions with them in preparation for our eventual co-existence in the Metaverse.
Just as an extensive range of customisation options for our avatars is vital for self-expression, diversity and inclusivity is equally important among currently existing virtual avatars; whether it be in fashion, music or influencing. Building virtual influencers with more emphasis on true humanity rather than with polished, mainstream ideals, new and relatable narratives for people with an array of backgrounds and experiences will be generated. In turn, this will shift people’s exposure to diversity in the metaverse to default rather than it being an afterthought.
The development of social media has seen an exponential change in communication methods. The evolution of social avatars has greatly contributed to these as well as increased engagement and tapped into the newly discovered interest of personalisation in the digital age. While avatar creation becomes more and more life-like, now closely representing one’s physicalities, personality traits and expressions, self-expression is at an all-time high. It is these customisation choices that will lead people to finding communities to gravitate towards and communicate within the Metaverse.
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