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Avatar – Part 1: Defining the modern avatar

Excitement continues to build for the theater release of James Cameron’s upcoming epic, “Avatar,” on December 18th. The film is a 3D science-fiction action movie starring Sam Worthington as Jake Sully, a paralyzed Marine who becomes reborn as an alien species – his “Avatar.”

While it’s uncertain exactly how the movie intends to use it, Cameron’s use of the word “avatar” is probably different than the one we encounter in our industry and the hype surrounding the film inspired us to delve into the word itself. This three part blog series will explore the use of the word avatar as we know it, the origins of the word and the varying cases in which the word “avatar” has been applied.


Part 1 – Defining the modern avatar

While many folks are still confused by the term “avatar,” its use is becoming more widespread as culture and communication continue to move online. We will explore the various forms and applications of the avatar, but for this part of the series we will need to place a definition to begin our journey.

An avatar is a graphical representation of one’s self, personality or alter-ego while engaging in online communication.  Avatars can range from simple, static 2D graphics to complex, animated 3D forms controlled by the user.

We see avatars in many forms of online communication. AOL instant messengers are using avatars when they place a “buddy icon” next to their name. Forum users will often use a picture under their names to represent themselves on their posts. Even a social network user who opts for a cartoon or other image that is not their photograph is using an avatar. It can even be argued that an altered personal photograph is in fact an avatar since it is not an “actual” representation of the person.

These are the simpler uses of an avatar but a person’s self representation online can be manifested in more complicated forms in virtual world spaces. Perhaps the most enabling of area of avatar creation is Second Life, a 3-dimensional world created entirely by its users. There are almost no bounds to what a person can be in this world. A person can run around as a tiny rabbit, a giant robot or even just themselves. Areas like Second Life give online communicators an incredible reach of self-representation.

Avatars allow people to connect what they are reading (or hearing, as the case may be) with the person generating it. They allow faces and visuals to enter in to the conversation on a platform that is often nameless or faceless. Whether an avatar enhances or detracts from the communication, they certainly provide more dimensions for absorbing it.

Read more:
Avatar – Part 2: Origins of the word and Avatar – Part 3: Future of the Avatar

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