Virtual Today, Reality Tomorrow

The cover story of my alumni rag, The Stanford Magazine, gives us a sneak peek into how researchers there are investigating the effects of online interactions and subsequent IRL behaviors. Example: people who were assigned more attractive avatars on a mock online dating site were more likely to approach more attractive people in a real-life interaction later on. Conclusion? We looked good during the online encounter and therefore our confidence increased; that confidence continued into our physical world existence and behaviors. Crazy, huh?

Here’s something a little more creepy. Dr. Nick Yee, a researcher at Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, has noted that the virtual world of Second Life tends to be an exaggerated, stereotypical version of the one we currently live in. And the avatars tend to reflect “an overemphasis on looking stereotypically good.” The implications? Gender stereotypes and expectations of beauty are reinforced, not challenged. Uh-oh. I know I am guilty of this. My avatar in Second Life (a total noob, but she is out there once in a Blue Moon) is sexy and cute, and she could just as easily be the opposite. But it’s hard to do something like that. I don’t think I would enjoy walking around looking less than spectacular. That may say something — a lot — about who I am, but I am by no means alone. I want to look good and Second Life offers me that option.

This work piggybacks on previous research that states that youth tend to engage in online pretending more to create an ideal self — a slightly exaggerated version of who they already are — not to reinvent themselves. So, if they create an ideal self, will they become it? Stay tuned. There’s more work to be done.

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