Call For Comments: Avatars and the Virtual You

From Mav: In the last few days an interesting meme of sorts has popped up on Facebook: people posting their “Facebook Avatars,” stylized cartoonish self-made images generated with Facebook’s mobile app. They’re cute enough, but rather innocuous and I didn’t think much of it. I did play around with it for 5 min and made one of myself, but didn’t bother to post it and went on with my day. It didn’t seem very important; after all this isn’t the first time this has come up. I’ve made little avatars like this with Bitmoji, Zmoji and Apples Memoji… and at various time silly little web apps that were “make yourself as a South Park or Peanuts character” or whatever. It’s a thing… I play with them and mostly forget. I always assumed that pretty much everyone else on the planet did the exact same thing.

Fast forward a couple of hours and I saw an interesting complaint from a webcomic artist friend. I then saw the same sentiment echoed by a couple others. Basically, the argument was “there are tons of working artists on the internet with affordable rates. If you want a custom avatar, why not come to one of us and get something personalized rather than doing the same computer thing that everyone else is doing?” On one hand, I see their point. If you want a cool cartoon of yourself, there are much nicer ways to get one than just using a software program. You can get something with a lot more personality and flair by hiring someone to draw it for you. Hell, i’m poor. And cheap(ish). I’ll do it!

But… (there’s always a but)… I also don’t think that’s really the point and I think there’s an important counterpoint that my artist friends are missing. I don’t think that the majority of people who are posting their facebook avatars actually want to HAVE a cool looking cartoon of themselves. They want to MAKE a cool looking cartoon of themselves. The make part is important. It’s also the difference of when someone hires me as a photographer vs. when they take a selfie. When someone asks me to draw them, what they are really purchasing is access to my skill, eyes and brain. They want me to interpret what I see when I look at them and give them a pretty picture of what I see in my head for them to share with the world. That’s not what they’re doing when they make their own avatar with one of these things or when they take a selfie. Self-portraits, however they’re created, are about self-expression. It’s how the person sees themselves and them wanting to share their own self-image with the world. No matter how good an artist I am, I can never capture that for any person who hires me. And I sure as hell ain’t gonna make them a full sticker set of 100 different images that they can pull up for different moods in random posts for anything close to affordable.

Despite how the Facebook Avatar thing is talked about, I don’t think anyone is really marveling at it because it’s pretty. It’s about the coolness of having a representation of yourself in the same shared virtual world that the rest of the world is using. It’s the same reason that a month ago, everyone was sharing their Animal Crossing avatars of themselves… or a few years ago, everyone was sharing their Nintendo Wii Miis. Anyone who is a fan of wrestling video games knows that the first thing you do when a new version of WWE Smackdown comes out isn’t to play a player versus player match, or start the season mode with John Cena. The first thing you do is go to the “Create-A-Wrestler” mode and spend the next 4 hours painstakingly trying to make yourself in the game. There’s also Picrew sets that have become somewhat popular now. A very limited set of art pieces that you are given to try and make a representation of yourself. I’ve seen some people do great jobs with this. And I do the same thing with most any game that comes with a character editor. Hell, even pen and paper RPGs… who amongst us hasnt spent 3 weeks trying to make a character sheet for themselves that perfectly represents themselves… and then never actually played the game?

There’s also something nice about the communal nature, just like there’s something nice about the individual nature. If I someday ran into… say Art Adams, Walt Simonson, or Bill Sienkiewicz… some of my favorite comics artists, maybe I might hire them to draw a picture of me… and sure I’d even probably make it my avatar for a while. But the reason I’m doing that is to say “look, I’m cooler than all of you cuz I have this awesome Sienkiewicz picture of myself and you don’t!!!” The reason people posted their Miis and then their Bitmojis and then their Memojis and then their Animal Crossing avatars, and now are doing their Facebook ones isn’t the same. It’s more like when a meme generator comes up and we all make Southpark, Simpsons, or Peanuts memes of ourselves. Everyone can get one of those! In the same style! It’s about belonging in the same all inclusive club.

What I’m getting at is that I think there is something very personal about the creative aspect of doing it yourself. Sure, for the right price I could hire a masterclass painter to create my portrait and post it to social media. But the “game” here of avatars is using the limited tools and having all of your friends go “oh wow, you really managed to capture yourself there! so cute!” (and hoping none of them say… “dude, you’re way fatter than that!”). That’s not to say that there isn’t value in the opposite as well. I think there is. But I think they’re a very different thing.

I do worry that one is encroaching on the other. There certainly are no shortage of people who say to artists: why should I hire you? I can just make this picture myself with SoftwareProductX. But honestly, those people don’t really appreciate our work anyway. They never really did. These are the same people who don’t want to hire a wedding photographer because “My cousin has a polaroid and he’s fine.”

So we’re interested in your take. Did you make one of these avatars? Have you with other software? Why do you think you do it? Do you think of them as art? Are you interested in getting art of yourself made from traditional artists as well? What are we missing?

3 Comments and 2 Webmentions for “Call For Comments: Avatars and the Virtual You”

  1. I will mention that some folks are frustrated because there are not ways to represent disabilities other than needing to wear glasses.

    If you’re an amputee, you have all of your limbs.
    If you use a wheel chair, guess what… now you don’t
    If you use hearing aids, it doesn’t matter.

    I’m sure that there are other disabilities that are being ignored, but those are the ones that jumped out (or in this case didn’t) at me.

    1. Yay Kathleen! I need one for me and my fancy canes and my tricked out mobility scooter!

  2. FWIW, I do think the FB avatars are being used as part of a virtual gathering app (lol, what is this the 90s?) called Horizen or something. Since we gotta social distance and they’re trying to double down on all this “social” aspects of social media.

    That said, you 100% hit the nail on the head. I had a custom avatar made by an artist I comissioned, and immediately I was like “my chin is huge in this, i look like jay leno”, obviously not to their face but still in my head I just pretended to be happy cuz I didn’t want to demand someone go back and try again. I’m paying for their interpretation of me and it may not fit the interpretation I have in my head.

    Which, I think is another thing, when you make an avatar of yourself, whether in an app or a game or whatever, you’re making an “ideal” version of yourself. So maybe you have cooler clothes, cool hair colors or different eye color, etc. You can feel more comfortable being vain.

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