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"Hello Avatar: Rise of the Networked Generation," by B. Coleman

December 20, 2011 | Hogan Keyser
hello_avatar.jpgDecember 16 By Alex Shakar via -- In his recent cri de coeur, "You Are Not a Gadget," technologist Jaron Lanier laments the course the World Wide Web has taken in its second decade. Far from the early visions of cyberspace and jacking into virtual worlds without end, he tells us, we've been given a flat world of information, an airless zoo where we find ourselves in the cages. We reduce ourselves to "multiple-choice identities" on social networks and give away our precious content for nothing, to be profited from by aggregators, advertisers and corporate conglomerates. The biggest losers online are artists, journalists, scientists and other creative thinkers, he writes, but to a lesser extent it's all of us, except for the one-percenters at the top who profit from the Web's "free" architecture. And, since it's just plain dull out there on the Web, we're getting the short end aesthetically as well.

In her new book, "Hello Avatar," artist and media theorist B. Coleman looks at the same virtual terrain and sees, rather than impoverishment and imaginative constriction, increasing personal agency, and even fulfillment. First of all, she'd like us to get over the word "virtual," coining the term "X-reality" (or cross-reality) to get at the way that our online experiences are actual and empowering. And we find this empowerment, she writes, thanks to our avatars.

By avatars, she doesn't just mean those little graphical people we pilot in computer games. Our avatars are something larger than that: our Facebook and Twitter profiles, anything representing us that emotes, right down to that late-'80s avatar ancestor, the humble emoticon. Those little pictures may not look like much, but no matter, because "we are more interested in shared sensory experiences -- the simulation of presence -- than we are in high-fidelity visualization," Coleman writes. Unlike when we watch TV or engage with other old media, she argues, the way we are present to one another online today should be seen not as passive but active -- a new form of agency.

So does Facebook give us more power? If you're of Lanier's view and see it as a place "driven more by fear than love," where users "must manage offhand remarks and track candid snapshots at parties as carefully as a politician," you might on balance disagree with Coleman. Social media's role in phenomena like the Arab spring would seem to bolster her position on empowerment; and the fact that 800 million people use Facebook would seem to back her belief that the value of "shared subjectivity" on such sites outweighs the occasional costs of "mutual objectification." She does note a curious discrepancy, however, between studies: those that "inform us that Americans in particular are lonelier than ever, lacking human contact and the confidences of close friendships," and those that report a growing richness and centrality of online friendships and affinity groups.

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