The Embodied Internet: Avatars and the Ethics of Representation
At a recent event, a male tech podcaster and content creator was called in by the father of a trans child for dressing in drag in some of his videos. Rather than being a sincere reflection of his gender identity, the podcaster used the drag for comic effect and as an insult. To his credit, the podcaster took the feedback and vowed to do better — but the incident raises a host of issues around representation and identity. As we move towards an avatar based embodied internet, a new question starts to emerge — what are the ethical implications of how we represent ourselves?
There are many reasons someone might choose to create an avatar that doesn’t represent their physical self. Many people live in communities where they cannot express their authentic identity for fear of violence or persecution, and the embodied internet can be a safe place for them to be who they really are. And there are lots of less fraught reasons someone might want to create an avatar that doesn’t exactly match their IRL look — pink hair might not fly at a banking job but having a mohawk on the embodied internet can let the world know that even though your day job happens at Goldman Sachs, you’re still a punk at heart.
But there are limits to how much we can toy with our identities on the embodied internet. It should be generally frowned upon to use an avatar of another racial or ethnic background, for example, especially if in doing so a user represents negative stereotypes or engages in harmful behaviors. As in the drag example at the start of the piece, using an avatar in an insincere or derogatory fashion should be called out.
Of course, there is no meaningful way to actually enforce this, other than creating a broad set of norms and social contracts around authentic representation. Social media platforms like Twitter have broken this down to the point where people just assume huge portions of the user base are bots or liars, which has eroded trust. If web2’s mantra was “on the internet, no one knows you’re a dog,” web3’s mantra should be “embody the dog you are and live your truth.”
Embodied internet platforms should do everything they can to help enable this, including offering avatars in a wide variety of body types, hair styles, skin tones, and gender identities. If they can’t meet a fairly high bar for realism, then they should tack in the other direction — making everyone a bunny or a cat, for example. Semi-realistic avatars (for instance, avatars where one can only be male or female, or have one body type) just create a sense of being in the uncanny valley and create discomfort for non-bonary people, or folks who don’t have a certain body shape.
Eventually all of this might be a moot point, as we will be able to volumetrically capture ourselves and use those images as our avatars, creating an even more realistic embodied internet. But until that type, we should focus on making sure the avatars we create represent our true selves as much as possible. If this is the place we start from, we will be on the way toward creating a more trustworthy web.