Avatars and Body Language
via Omega Point
Body language in the real-world is an essential and powerful communications tool. With it we can convey what is often referred to as, "sub-text." Not to be taken literally, the dictionary definition explains the meaning thus:
2. The underlying personality of a dramatic character as implied or indicated by a script or text and interpreted by an actor in performance
To frame it in context, astute observers of human interaction eventually notice that in any conversation there are two lines (sometimes more!) of communication taking place simultaneously between two peope: that which is said, and that which is implied. For the purposes of this post, sub-text refers to implied speech.
Sub-text in real life is easy to communicate and happens almost sub-consciously for most people. It's all about the way you stand, the direction your eyes glance, the way your mouth moves when you speak... dozens of tiny hints are hidden in your physical movements that often say more than what your actually saying.
In Second Life, most of us assume some form of humanoid equivalent. With the power of user-created animations and gestures, is it safe to assume that we can transmit sub-text in our conversation online? With arms and legs and hands... even some facial expressions; it's a world above plain-text in emails, IMs, and IRC. How can you compare, :-) to a full 3D avatar with a smile animation?
However, like emoticons, body-language (if you can call it that) in Second Life is highly distorted. While one is able to convey more information -- it takes a really clever mind and quick hot-keying to make an avater convey even a fraction of the body language we use in our day-to-day lives. There is also the problem that because of the lack of range for body movement, subtleties are either exaggerated or outright ignored making it difficult to seperate the noise from the signal. Where emoticons lack information, it is in my opinion that Second Life can sometimes add too much irrelevant information. Like the fabled, "lol;" not everyone is keeling over with laughter at your joke.
Thankfully our amazing human brains are built to work with signal noise. There is enormous amounts of it in our daily lives and activities, and so it's reasonable to assume there will be in Second Life as well. For example, I'm sure most of us understand that when an avatar is keeling over laughing at our notorious trout joke, it may only really mean we got half a smirk or so from the person beind the avatar. So if there is extraneous noise, but we're able to filter most of the obvious stuff out, how does that affect our perception of our online relationships? What about meeting new people?
This blogger suggests that it may also distort our relationships as it distorts our communication. Many people who consider themselves less-than-socially adequate tend to find strong bonds and meaningful relationships in Second Life. This could be because we're now expanding our ability to communicate online with degrees of (clumsy and limited) sub-text... via proxy. It could also be because that proxy is a projection of our ideal selves, which in turn expands the bubble of lies that protect our true natures in real-world situations.
When truth begins in lies, Second Life might actually be a utopia.