Gravatars and Identity

Gravatars are “globally recognised avatars”. Here, an avatar is a simple image representing the author of a ‘blog or forum comment. The name is derived from Hindu philosophy, although the blog/forum avatars are the direct descendants of the avatars found in video games, specifically role-play titles. This article discusses the limitations of Gravatars, and hints at a future based on game-like automated customisation for forum avatars.

Be warned that this is another inadequately researched “thoughts” article, that covers a lot of rather well-discussed territory superficially, and perhaps needs to be developed further.

Gravatars in Practice

The idea is simple: Instead of uploading your image to every website you interact with, upload it centrally, and allow each website you use to retrieve your avatar from the central source. Gravatars are linked to your email address, which already uniquely identifies you on the internet. Gravatars are currently still the preserve of hardcore bloggers. And no, they are not installed on this site yet either (comments are infrequent here). While implementing the code to support Gravatars is straightforward, it is still rarely done on ‘blogs, and almost never added to internet forums. Like OpenID, it is the sort of idea that needs to attain a critical mass of widespread use before it will become truly useful.

I opted to try using Gravatars at El’s Extreme Anglin’ forums. Partly because (by design) BBPress has no avatar features by default, yet users still expect to be able to personalise their posts by using avatars. Partly because not allowing image uploads or remote image hosting removes a potential avenue of attack by hackers. Partly because it seems logical.

However, already some issues are emerging:

  1. Where users attempt to create a Gravatar account, they invariably fail to get Gravatars working, with the result that the default image shows.
  2. The majority of users don’t already have, or don’t wish to use Gravatars.

In my opinion, the first problem is a design failing of Gravatar’s website: After uploading an image, Gravatar needs to be told to use the image that has just been uploaded. This final step in the process is not sufficiently clear to most users because it should not be necessary – “I just gave you an image to use, why aren’t you using it?”

Multiple Identities and Avatars

The second problem in part reflects the tendency of ordinary internet users (that is, not the people that post a lot of blog comments) not to have Gravatars associated with their email addresses. That may change in time, particularly in tech-savvy areas such as gaming.

But one specific reason for not using Gravatars is the fact that a user may want to display a different image depending on the type of site they are posting on. Gravatar’s service allows multiple images to be uploaded, but only one image can be used at a time. The only way I know to attach different images to different websites is to use different email addresses. Sure, there is no shortage of free email services… but doesn’t that merely replace one administrative saving (an avatar that follows you) with another (a need to create and monitor a new email account)?

At the root of the problem is the premise that one person = one email = one identity = one avatar. In the sphere of online gaming, at least, that is a very contentious, and consequently dangerous, assumption to make.

It is worth analysing our perceptions on this.

Some people have a desire for separate visual identities, yet all managed from the same email address. Deep philosophical debate can ensue. Does that mean our emails are closer to us as physical entities than our avatars? Or is it just a purely pragmatic visual thing? A lolcat might look great on a casual discussion forum, but would be less convincing (or socially acceptable) against a formal piece of academic writing.

Sometimes it is very practical: On a service such as Facebook, I find it useful to see a picture of what a person physically looks like, because most of the people I have befriended there are people that I am likely to meet and talk to physically. (And I’m terrible at remembering names, so am frequently confused by friend requests from cute animals or blurry-looking groups of drunk people.) In contrast, on a gaming discussion forum, seeing an image of the actual person posting is not especially relevant, and can even be somewhat distracting.

Every online game that introduces something akin to Tabula Rasa‘s surname (where the surname is linked to the player, and shows on all their alts), seems to upset people that want to separate out characters/avatars from any link to other characters/avatars. Yet in Live Action Role-Play (like a Massively Multiplayer Online Game RolePlay-Player-vs-Player server, but without the computers), it was often said that most players end up playing themselves: While you can attempt to change your visual identity, your behaviour ultimately reflects who you are. Clay Shirky draws an interesting conclusion from the case of Kaycee Nicole, a famous internet hoax involving false identity:

“When the community understands that you’ve been doing it and you’re faking, that is seen as a huge and violent transgression. And they will expend an astonishing amount of energy to find you and punish you. So identity is much less slippery than the early literature would lead us to believe.”

Avatars of the Future

Are these perceptions changing over time? Personally I’ve found that over the last ten years my real and virtual identities have merged: I no longer actively try and isolate one from another, and pretend that one is a different person from the other. But that may simply reflect my growing personal acceptance of who I am, and not be related to physical-vs-virtual identity. At the other end of the scale their are the social networking virgins: Young adults who continue to refuse to engage in any for of internet networking with their peers, because they fear that they will no longer be able to hide the truth about what they really do from polite society, potential employers, or anyone else that might “use the web against them”. Will they change with time?

The key question remains, will multiple avatars always be a requirement of an online presence, or is this merely a transitional phase while people experiment with the concept? It might be argued that in either case Gravatar is the wrong approach, since currently there is a need for multiple visual identities – a mainstream need, not the need of a quirky few – yet the system struggles to accommodate that need. It follows that linking a visual internet identity to an email address is flawed.

A solution would be to add a further sub-classification of avatar after the email address: me@example.com:work would somehow determine that the site displaying the avatar was a work-related one, and display a sensible work-related avatar.

But avatars are still incredibly basic. On some forums, you will now find a line below the avatar that says “I’m feel a tired”, yet the avatar still shows a happy smiling face. Or the poster is on holiday in Florida… yet there is still snow in the background of their picture. Better to alter the face in the image to reflect the mood or alter the background of the avatar to reflect the place. (With appropriate alt and title tags, of course!)

The historic link between forum and game avatars is already coming full circle, with avatar generators for “games” like World of Warcraft and Gaia Online that allow the creation of forum avatars based on virtual-world appearance. It isn’t a huge step forward to make avatars a lot more “realistic” than they traditionally have been.

With all those customisation options, perhaps the old method of site-specific avatars wasn’t so bad after all?