Tuesday, April 14, 2009
The Avata Hero
Today we mean and use avatars as more than a graphical image that represents a person, as on the Internet. Avatars have wider semiotic role that is even beyond an embodiment of a person or character or even view of life.
Sure, the characters we see rushing round the screen when we play tennis using an Nintendo WII are avatars but they are more. They are a representation of ourselves and our opponents. Who, one might ask, are you playing tennis with?
But what of the email address firstname.lastname@example.org? Is this email address a person or the representation of a broader semantic description of a person or group of people? What of the music we offer from web site that represent a brand value, event or other range of values?
There are other manifestations that can be considered. Lots of web sites have pictures of people that represent 'the public' but which are really stock photographs from commercial libraries of the beautiful people.
These semiotic variants of the avatar are all part of the repertoire of representations we have at our disposal and there are many more.
In PR how should we regard avatars. Are they, for instance, a form of passing off... a cousin to astroturfing? Or are they a benign device like wall paper?
In a world that now values transparency as an tool in the construction of trust, should we use avatars in communication?
I suspect that they are not going away anytime soon. Indeed, I believe that we will have our own array of avatars that will be semiotic representations of our various selves in many Internet driven forms of interaction and communicating.
So now we need to think through the ethical and moral use, not to mention the legal ramifications involved in the use of avatars.
A simple utilitarian view will require a lot of mind searching before unthinking use of avatars is the norm in PR. After all, are we helping understanding or are we disguising reality in the use of avatars?
But avatars can be a useful device.
They can represent organisations, company departments, the professional occupation of a person who does not want to make their private self public.
When we use the semiotic device of calling ourselves 'the Press Office' what do we mean and what form of disclosure is needed to explain this 'person/department' called a press office?
Perhaps it is now time for some thought to be given to how we handle the avatar issue and where this fits into considerations astroturfing and passing off.
I think that there is a very good case for having avatars and virtual metaphors for people, activities, departments and even, in some cases, whole organisations.
So what are the rules for disclosure?
There is, of course, the utilitarianist view. The use of avatars and online metaphors is OK as long as the generality of the population understands and accepts them.
Well, that no longer holds water. It was fine for an era of mass communication. But its rubbish in an era of user generated publics (or social segments, if you like).
Today maximisation of the good by institutions for those within the society, and by individuals is a code (utilitarian ethical construct) for public actions and personal actions in a mass media era. The issue of what should be done about behavior that produces significant harm for a society on a mass media level would be to select policies which would reduce the overall harm. On the other hand in a era of niche and networked communities, this can become unwieldy as the network takes on a role of communication for a wide (even mass) community because of the network effect. With the unforgetting and time shifting internet at play today's decision can equally be found wanting in a short-while especially as the half life of existance is both short and long tailed.
There is the other way. We can charge practitioners not to use avatars or online metaphors of they will damage long term relationships with the organisation to the detriment of shareholders/voters.
There is some work to be done in this area.