By Yuki Noguchi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 22, 2005
Jeff Maynard has created an online alter ego, Klepto.
Klepto is slightly trimmer but otherwise looks and dresses like Maynard. He races cars and attends black-tie weddings. Despite a recent falling out, he still hangs with a crowd that includes friends from England and New Zealand.
Klepto is Maynard's avatar, a character designed to be Maynard's lifelike stand-in when he's online. He speaks to other people's avatars only when Maynard types, and he moves only when Maynard commands him to.
"It doesn't feel any different to me; it's just an extension of me in real life," the 35-year-old Arlington resident said of expressing himself through Klepto.
People spend more of their lives online -- the average American Internet user spends 80 hours a month online at work and 30 hours at home, according to Nielsen-NetRatings -- and Web-based interactions are evolving to look less like word-based messaging and more like facsimiles of physical existence. Tens of millions of Internet users have online doppelgangers they design to act as their proxy online -- communicating, shopping and socializing on their behalf and expressing themselves through humanoid gestures, voices and facial expressions.
People meet and develop real relationships through their avatars, speaking to one another through instant-messaging systems, expressing joy by making their characters dance and expressing love by instructing their avatars to kiss. Some meet, date and even marry solely online -- without ever expecting to meet their mate in person.
In the virtual world, cartoon-like avatars appear with their screen names above their heads. Avatars breathe on their own but can be instructed to walk, run, sit or turn. As they encounter other avatars, they talk through messages that appear in bubbles above their heads, shaking their head when the user types "no" and laughing when he or she types "lol" (laugh out loud).
They usually reflect their real-life counterpart's personality, while keeping the real identity -- and appearance -- hidden. Sometimes that serves as a mask for deception or to distort reality; teenagers, for example, sometimes create avatars to explore different parts of their personality. But more often, as is the case with Maynard, users say that avatars help build greater closeness and trust online and that the avatars hew closely to the users' actual personalities.
Users invest in them, literally, spending real money in exchange for fake currency that allows them to clothe, house and accessorize their avatars. Eventually, experts say, avatars may become the primary way computer users recognize one another online, whether they are using instant messaging or surfing the Web.
"People become attached to their online identity. They care about being consistent so that people can trust them," said Ralph Schroeder, a research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute at Oxford University who studies the sociology of online behavior. "This issue of trust comes up again and again."
Richard Hallock, 39, is an avid fan of There.com, a Web site that offers a virtual world where he can socialize through his avatar with other people, including his wife's avatar.
"It's a little easier to trust people in There. It's a very community feeling," said Hallock, who in real life teaches middle and elementary school and lives in Pollock Pines, Calif. He said he's seen people use avatars for many types of communal functions, including joining an online autism support group. Hallock shares his virtual car with other avatars when he's not using it. He even plans to release a feature-length movie he shot entirely in There.
Avatar, a concept from Hindu mythology that means "the incarnation of a god," is an age-old concept that entered computer lingo in the 1960s but only recently has become a mass-cultural phenomenon. Now, 90 percent of America Online instant messengers use some form of avatar -- either a static image or a more advanced, 3-D "super buddy" that moves, laughs, shouts or talks in response to what's being typed in the message systems.
Yahoo Inc., which has a monthly audience of 7 million on its avatar-creation site, cuts deals with brands such as Adidas, Jeep and French Connection UK to allow avatars to use their products online. Companies such as New York-based Oddcast Inc. are designing software that enables businesses to set up marketing programs with avatars that talk to the customer.
With better technology and higher Internet speeds, it's now easier to create and convey nuanced expressions and body language, humanizing more social and business interactions and allowing a greater range of expression of real-world desires.
"People in social virtual worlds create idealized versions of themselves," said Betsy Book, editor of Virtual Worlds Review, which tracks 28 Web sites, such as Habbo Hotel and There, where people go largely to socialize through their avatars. "You'll be a little thinner, a little more fabulous. You definitely want to put your best virtual face forward."
Robert Balaban, 13, designed an avatar on ESPN.com that looks like a British soccer star with fluorescent blond hair and hipster glasses who speaks in a digitized baritone far deeper than his real voice. Balaban records his opinion about the Redskins, and they are vocalized online by his avatar.
"I don't think many people care about listening to a teenager's opinion," Balaban said, by way of explaining the slight fictional license. Others posting comments front as other people, too, the Bethesda seventh-grader said. "Most of them had a blue Afro with yellow skin."
In other cases, art impersonates life in a disturbing way.
Owings Mills resident Janet Weisenfreund discovered an avatar with huge maroon lips wearing giant purple sunglasses and bohemian-style loose clothing named after her on ESPN.com.
"I certainly consider it an invasion of my privacy," said Weisenfreund, a middle school teacher who said she did not create the avatar and describes her real style as "Talbots classical."
Over time, avatars may follow their creators around on different programs, such as a name tag that pops up on instant messages, on Web logs and even when doing shopping searches, interfacing with other shoppers.
"It's part of a range of personalization tools we're building at Yahoo," said David Kopp, director of community applications for the company. It's technically and creatively challenging to create a richer library of subtle expressions and moods such as sarcasm or nervousness, he said, but that's what users want. No matter what kind of interaction it is, having more complex expression makes it a much more personal experience for people, he said.
Book, who has "an avatar in every world," said there is irony in the impulse. "We finally have this medium which is disembodied and free of the physical, and here we are busily trying to re-create ourselves."