Wearing your mask right now?
For a class I recently read the short story “The Moon Moth,” by Jack Vance. Part of the premise of the story is that everyone on the planet the story takes place on wears a mask at all times. The masks serve to inform others of one’s social status, as well as one’s personality and current mood. So, a renowned craftsman would wear a different mask than a young craftsman, and both wear different masks than a slave or prince. These masks are tremendously important in this world, and are the primary means of determining how to address someone.
This sounds outlandish, and though my professor drew an analogy to the type of car one chooses to drive, there’s really no parallel in the real world. However, the concept reminded me of the avatars used on online forums.
As in “The Moon Moth,” a person has total control over his appearance in an online environment (or at least in the types of environments considered here). I’ve discussed the significance of one’s screen name before, but the avatar is just as important. After one has been visiting a forum for a while, it’s common to identify others by their avatar more than by their name, not unlike in the real world, where one first recognizes others by their face. Except, unlike one’s bare face (barring, say, battle-scars) one can use an avatar as self-expression.
Probably the most common form of self-expression via avatars is an indication of one’s interests. If I were to use the above image as an avatar, I’d clue in others that I’m at least interested in comics and animation in general, those who recognize Rei (the female character) could also assume I specifically like Neon Genesis Evangelion, and those who are really nerdy (yeah, like me…) and recognized this specific image could also infer that I’m a fan of Kiyohiko Azuma. Of course, the text in the image can also say something about me, though usually an avatar is a little more subtle than that.
For example, I change my avatar on forums I frequent depending on what topics I’m involved with at the moment (I post infrequently enough, though, that I’m often only involved with a few threads at a time). When posting a musical parody (note: this links to a Megatokyo fanwork), for instance, I generally use this image of John Lennon’s ear: