Avatars are a form of language; they operate as a sign system that can be read in semiotic terms. Avatars are a type of recognition for virtual world users. An avatar can come in very many different forms. For example linguistic avatars, a tag line or saying to represent the user in a particular way. Or a pictorial avatar which is a visual representation of the user. Avatars often revel in the gap between the signifier and the signified: users enjoy creating avatars that are not like themselves, so that there is a big difference between signifier (avatar) and signified (user). The pictorial avatars are frequently the polar opposite of the signified. This is because the users want to generate their own impression of themselves to allow people to recognize them as their signifier rather than making their own opinions of them. This could be down to insecurities or just to represent your true self.
Generally the avatar directs you to an illusion or representation of the user. The symbol of the avatar (signifier) points to the signified (the user), creating a sign. This is useful in both the virtual work place and the online community; avatars add a personal touch and take away the cold machine interface. This makes the internet a seemingly less daunting place. For the work place it is a key piece of identification and recognition becomes quick and easy. The avatar’s function is as a representation of the user within the online environment. As such, the user instils the avatar with qualities they want to project into that environment. This means that Users can have multiple avatars for different online environments. In the work place you wouldn’t have a modified car with women draped over it, however for a car modification site this would be acceptable. The acceptability and control of avatars is down to the website and their rules on what is appropriate.
Although Avatars can be used to add a personal appeal to the internet and the online community, at the same time, it provides a distancing device that turns person (user) into character (avatar). It is a fictionalising tool that creates a new reality. This can cause confusion and also danger. There is a growing rise in abduction and child and even teenagers safety as the public become ever more competent with the internet, new ways of tricking young people have been formed. For example a criminal can now use a false avatar and information to arrange meetings and cause harm to young people. “Teens often fabricate key identifying information like name, age, and location to protect themselves.” Danah Boyd. An avatar acts as a calling card/ telephone number/ identification card etc, allowing others to find the user/ avatar. However this isn’t always the danger as false accounts can now be traced and the online environment is diligently battling online crime.
Social networking sites have taken a huge boom recently and almost everyone between the ages of 12 and 50 have facebook, as a mass, however there are people older and younger as a minority. Avatars that take the forms of profile pictures (like on Facebook and MySpace) are like wearing your best clothes to non-uniform day at school: users want to present certain aspects of their personality (real, imagined or aspirational) to the society they interact with. This ideology is to show off, and show the people on the site you have money and you have nice clothes it is a way of advertising yourself and representing yourself in the way you feel most comfortable and acceptable.
The avatar is a visual representation of the user that enables participation within the online environment. As such, it is a social tool. The semiotics of the avatar are widely used to represent the image of yourself you wish others to see. It is a means of identification and fantasy depending on the online environment you are participating in.