Repost | 04/05/2011 with updated links and revisions
I've never really been bothered that my avatar doesn't look like me and because of the present technology of Second Life, cannot look like my actual person. Nonetheless, I've read articles that bemoan the "retro" appearance of SL avatars and that people are looking for a better, more realistic platform. But it's now possible that when they find that realism, they may be ... um ... creeped out:
A theory called the "uncanny valley" says we tend to feel attracted to inanimate objects with human traits, the way a teddy bear or a rag doll seems cute. Our affection grows as an object looks more human. But if it looks too human, we suddenly become repulsed.
Instead of seeing what's similar, we notice the flaws — and the motionless eyes or awkward movements suddenly make us uncomfortable. (See AP article "Too real means too creepy in new Disney animation" and more recently, a review of the new Tin-Tin movie)What a relief! (Although, looking at some of the things that mesh technology is allowing creators to do, we may get some first-hand experience with the uncanny valley!)
I was in a conversation with a good friend the other night who felt that avatars cannot duplicate the authenticity of face-to-face discourse. For his side of the debate, he posited that eighty percent of communication comes from the unconscious, non-verbal gestures and facial "language" occurring in a face-to-face situation. My response, having experienced avatar-to-avatar discourse on a near-daily basis for the past four years, seems weak in comparison: I know authenticity when I experience it and it happens in SL.
I tried to counter his main point by stating that the avatar is an abstract expression of the actual person's unconscious as well as conscious attempt to create a virtual self. When you see my avatar, you won't see a middle-aged man with double chin, receding hair, buddha paunch and all the prejudgments that unconsciously creep into someone confronted by that appearance. My avatar is neutral in that regard. Perhaps that is an advantage rather than a disadvantage in communicating. It takes into account that "uncanny valley" by avoiding realism as well as unconscious prejudices.
Maybe, when all that unconscious verbiage of facial expression and body language is set aside, words become a more important part of the conversation. Even if a person is struggling to get his or her text to say what he or she wants, you, the listener/reader, aren't distracted by interpreting unconscious baggage but actually struggling to understand on the basis of creating a relationship free of the "thin slicing" of our own unconscious prejudices. In a situation where Voice is used, you have the vocal subtleties without the visual baggage.
On that basis, I say score another point for the power of presence in Second Life to create powerful relationships in a superb virtual social networking framework.