The Twitterati likely already know that last week, I joined MIT science writing professor (and fellow author/physics aficionado) Tom Levenson in the virtual world, Second Life, for the Virtually Speaking Science (VSS) podcast, hosted by BlogTalk Radio. We chatted about math and calculus, Hollywood "science," the dismal (or not so dismal?) future of science writing, and commiserated on the writerly angst that invariably accompanies a book project.

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In fact, I've signed on to host my own monthly hour-long discussions for VSS, joining Tom and the other VSS host, MSNBC's Alan Boyle. The audience is admittedly small. Despite boasting some 15 million users, Second Life has never quite achieved the same mainstream market penetration as, say, World of Warcraft and many other MMOs, perhaps because the user interface is, frankly, kind of awkward and clumsy (and the rendering program can be maddeningly slow to load). But those who do use it regularly are diehard fans. And we certainly hope to grow a wider audience, both within Second Life for the "live" events, and via the audio available via BlogTalkRadio: there are some terrific discussions archived at the VSS site, and even more to come.

My gig will be the second Wednesday of every month, starting October 10, and I hope you'll join us --if not in Second Life itself, at least via BlogTalkRadio. I've amassed quite the short list of impressive, articulate potential guests -- assuming they're willing to build an avatar. Happily, several seem to be sufficiently intrigued by the notion to do so.

And why not? It's just a more elaborate version of the little Jen-Luc Piquant mood avatars that I use at the opening of each post. True, there might be the faint whiff of narcissism hovering about such activity, but only at the most superficial level. Dig a little deeper into the human psychology of self-representation, and avatars are just a technology-enabled extension of the self. The richness of our virtual experience depends on our establishing a strong bond with our avatar.

I joined Second Life (as Jen-Luc Piquant) a couple of years ago when my spouse – whose dashing avatar is named Seamus Tomorrow – gave a virtual physics lecture as part of the Meta Institute for Computational Astrophysics (MICA), a nonprofit group that held public events in Second Life until the program ended earlier this year. We have a modernist-style house, which is sparsely, though tastefully, furnished, and an adorable virtual feline named Miss Kitty who scampers around with her toy ball and “purrs” when we pet her.

“Avatar” comes from a Sanskrit word describing various incarnations of the Hindu god Vishnu on Earth. Just as Vishnu inhabits and animates his human host on the terrestrial plane, a person can build a digital representative through which he or she can interact in the virtual sphere. Practically since the invention of games over 4000 years ago, human beings have employed tokens to represent the players – including the classic board game, Monopoly, where one may choose any number of small metal pieces to mark one’s “place” on the board.

When people began interacting online, many chose small static thumbnail images to represent themselves, and this naturally extended to computer games. The term was first used to describe full virtual bodies in the 1986 online role-playing game Habitat, although Neal Stephenson’s groundbreaking 1992 cyberpunk novel, Snow Crash, is widely credited with bringing “avatar” into mainstream culture.

An avatar can be an accurate representation of one’s actual self, or a fantasy self (an elf, a dragon, an Amazonian angel), or even an ideal self – the person you might like to be, in a world free of the usual constraints. “We all have selves that we envision in the future, and they serve as very powerful motivational goals,” Michael Strube, a psychologist at Washington University, St. Louis, explained to me when I visited the department last winter. “We may present a self that may not currently be true, but perhaps we would like it to be true. We are hoping that others might accept it and validate it in ways that allow it to become true.”

There's a powerful element of wish-fulfillment. In your first life, you might be a pudgy schlub with a boring job and cramped apartment who drives a battered used Toyota. But log into Second Life and you instantly become good-looking, fit, well-dressed, and wealthy enough to tool around in a sleek Ferrari – when you’re not flying, that is, or instantly teleporting from place to place. Yes, you can defy the laws of physics. You can even use the built-in “camera” to zoom in and out and rotate your perspective on the virtual space.

Jackie Morie, who studies the impact of immersive technologies and virtual worlds at the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies, admitted she had always wanted red hair, green eyes and fuller lips; in Second Life, she has all three. I did the same when designing Jen-Luc Piquant: she is younger, thinner, with fuller lips and better hair -- an idealized self that I could never achieve in the meat world, where her proportions would make her a freak of nature. (Apparently she stands 6’4”; avatars are very tall in Second Life.)

For all that freedom in constructing online identities, most people – 89.9%, according to a 2010 study --tend to choose avatars that share similarities with their “real world” selves: the same gender, a similar name, and either resembling their real-life physical self, or personifying an idealized version. A 2007 study of online gamers found that only 4% of women chose a male character and only 14% of men chose a female character, although adolescents were far more likely to engage in gender swapping as a form of identity play, perhaps because at that age one’s identity and sense of self are still very much in flux.

So for the most part, we use our avatars as a means of self-presentation and self-verification via online interactions with others. We bond more strongly with avatars that resemble us, and the more we bond with our avatars, the more enjoyable we will find the virtual experience, whether it's gaming, or attending concerts, going shopping, or getting our freak on in Second Life. We need to be able to look at our avatar and feel, “This is me.”

That is not to say one can’t have more than one avatar to explore different aspects of one’s personality. Morie uses three primary avatars in Second Life, including twins who have distinct personalities and different back stories. She even borrowed her husband’s avatar once, but soon discarded it because “I had so many women hit on me.”

To Morie, such role-playing is perfectly natural, even healthy. “Our identity shifts all the time and every day, morphing and evolving based on what we are doing now,” she said. “I’m not the same person I was at 16 and I’m not the same person I was last week.” As for my own faux-French avatar, Morie opined, “She’s part of you, but she’s not the totality of you, and she may not even be who you are at the moment.”

One might think, in a virtual world where everyone can present an idealized self, that appearance would cease to matter, but this is not the case. First impressions matter a great deal, even in Second Life. We can use observations drawn from avatar cues (attractiveness, gender, hairstyle) to form personality impressions.

Only a handful of studies have been published to date on which attributes make the best first impressions, but the findings offer a few useful tips on effective cues.

*Avatars with larger pupils are judged to be more attractive, happier, good humored and sympathetic, even though we are not consciously aware of that trait.

* Frequent eye blinking (60 blinks per minute) is associated with dishonesty, fearfulness, shyness, and anxiety. Reduce the blink rate to 24 blinks per minute, and your avatar will appear to be more sociable and attractive.

* Avatars viewed from below are deemed more sociable, self-confident and attractive, compared to those viewed from above, who are deemed weaker and in need of protection. A full frontal view means that avatar will likely be deemed more trustworthy, open and sympathetic.

Certain characteristics of one’s avatar can also be associated with particular personality traits, as defined by the Big Five model currently favored by psychologists. Think OCEAN: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism.

Attractive avatars with long, stylish hair are usually seen as more extroverted. Male avatars with black hair, or wearing jeans, gray shirts, or long-sleeved shirts are seen as introverted, while female avatars with blonde hair wearing pink shirts, necklaces, bathing suits, or high heels are deemed more extroverted.

Large breasts on female avatars serve as a cue for extroversion, too, as well as openness -- quelle surprise! -- although if they also favor Gothic style clothing, they are seen as more neurotic. Blonde hair and dressy clothes on females correlate with higher agreeableness. Male avatars should avoid army pants, black shirts and sunglasses, lest they be deemed less agreeable.

That’s what the studies say, anyway, which doesn’t bode well for Jen-Luc Piquant’s social prospects in Second Life. True, she has the requisite flowing long hair, but it is purple, not blonde. And rather than enhance her feminine pulchritude to exaggerated extremes, I reduced her breast and hip size as much as possible to give her a lanky gamine build. (It's possible I went a bit overboard on that score.)

She only has two outfits so far: a snazzy steampunk ensemble, complete with military-style trenchcoat and chic aviator goggles, and a classic edgy “rocker chick” ensemble. Jen-Luc doesn’t do ultra-high heels, French maid outfits, sexy bathing suits, or any shade of pink. As a committed Lacanian, she eschews the most obvious forms of self-objectification, even as she acknowledges her own dual existence straddling the boundary between Subject and Object.

That doesn’t stop her from mugging shamelessly for Second Life’s built-in camera every chance she gets. The ability to shift perspective means we can view our avatar from the front, and see our virtual self the way other residents see us in cyberspace. We can also take snapshots of our avatar, and when the camera clicks, said avatar will momentarily throw up its hands to frame its face and beam with delight.

Interesting tidbit: Morie noted that while many of us react poorly to photographs of our actual selves, “We are more likely to be enamored of the look of our avatar.” Second Life is a true digital mirror in that regard.

Remember in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, when Harry finds a magic mirror that shows one's innermost desires? Harry sees himself reunited with his parents, while Ron Weasley sees himself popular and the center of attention, instead of the perennial sidekick/younger sibling. It's a bit like that. Yet as Dumbledore tells Harry, “The happiest man in the world looks in the mirror and only sees himself exactly as he is.”

The rest of us will just have to settle for virtual wish-fulfillment.

Partially adapted from the draft manuscript for my book-in-progress, Me, Myself and Why: Searching for the Science of Self, forthcoming from Penguin in 2013.


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Thanks to Melanie Tannenbaum of PsySociety for pointing me to many of these papers.