McIlvenny, Paul (2001). Avatars R Us? Discourses of Community and Embodiment in Intercultural Cyberspace. In Allwood, Jens & Dorriots, Beatriz (Eds.), Intercultural Communication - Business and the Internet: Papers from the Fifth Nordic Symposium on Intercultural Communication, 1998, Gothenburg, Sweden: Papers in Anthropological Linguistics 27, Department of Linguistics, Gothenburg University, 129-147.
Also appears in the first ../../images/re of the electronic journal Intercultural Communication 1999.
This paper examines the recent emergence of visions of globalised virtual communities who inhabit versions of cyberspace implemented on the Internet. In the last decade a number of supposedly universally accessible computer-generated worlds have been developed and then inhabited by geographically dispersed computer users who can communicate and animate a virtual graphical presence, as avatars, to others in the environment. Often it is claimed that geography, nationality, race and gender (are) no longer matter in these novel domains. In regard to the contemporary debates over the nature of intercultural communication, key questions immediately arise. How is human communication envisaged in these so-called transcultural virtual communities? Are the pervasive troubles of off-line intercultural communication really transcended online? How do participants shape their talk and language use to constitute their virtual intercultural encounters? What role does the graphical avatar embodiment play for participants who communicate a virtual ethnicity to others?
To try to address these important questions, I focus on our changing conceptions and practices of, as well as relations between, community and embodiment in intercultural cyberspace. Much has been written recently on the nature of computer-mediated communication and the virtual community, but as yet there are few practical studies of ethnicity and situated virtual intercultural communication in avatar worlds. In the first part of the paper, I examine some of the discourses of the virtual community that are now circulating, especially as they relate to the commodification of community. In the second part, I connect them to ../../images/res of embodiment and identity by analysing a fragment of intercultural social interaction that took place in inhabited cyberspace. The main thrust of the paper is that new communication technologies are reshaping our conceptions and practices of communication, community and culture. Consequently, how we communicate our cultural identities and form our identifications in and through new technologies, as well as how we encounter virtual others, needs careful investigation.
To draw the readers attention to the often unnoticed but crucial impact of communication technologies on how we conceive of intercultural communication, let us compare two recent examples. The two images1 discussed promote a transcendent vision of intercultural communication and community to be achieved with the aid of social technologies. First, let us look at how a new variant the mobile phone of an older virtual communications technology the telephone is marketed. The particular Mobilix advertisement that is discussed here first appeared in the Danish press and on billboards in the early Spring of 1998. Three Danish words "Samtale fremmer forståelsen" ["Dialogue promotes understanding"] bridge the starkly contrasted images of two women separated by an abyss of white space. The woman on the left is white and stereotypically Nordic; she wears sunglasses. The woman of colour on the right wears a veil required for a devout Muslim woman; only her eyes are visible. Both stare out of the advert at the viewer; not at each other. For a reader, this advert may conjure up the binary distinction between the West and the East, between native and immigrant woman, between emancipation and oppression, between freedom of expression and censorship, between Christianity and Islam, played out through the contrast between the womens appearances, dress, and fashion. It is the product of one of those Benetton-inspired advertising campaigns that are ambivalently inserted virus-like into contemporary social debates on, for example, immigration, religion, gender and discrimination. The advert, which is one in a series, promotes the salvation narrative that a value-free communications technology can provide the means to overcome deep social and cultural divisions. It also reinforces the false assumption that troubles in intercultural encounters are a matter of communicative misunderstanding between two distinct, homogenous cultures.
Compare that advert to the following simulacrum of the intercultural. The second image was created by Roger Zuidema for the book Avatars! (Damer 1998) and is called Avabar scene, a composite of avatars from the many different virtual worlds that have been implemented. The avatars include an Inuit, a clown, a bride and groom, animals and fictional characters. Many face us as if standing to attention, expectant of our interest and gaze. The Inuit man seems to welcome us with open arms. All are gathered in avaface-to-avaface presence in a 3-D environment that resembles a large hall with a bar and dance floor. It is a bounded public space, a supposedly egalitarian, neutral place, where people meet, chat, socialise and make friends. However, since none of the software required to inhabit the different worlds yet have provision for avatars to transfer with integrity between worlds, such a gathering of the tribes in the new virtual global village is not currently possible.
What then are we to make of this second fantasy image? Does it signify an ecumenical vision of a global community to be realised through us inhabiting new communications technologies? Of course, one driving force behind this convergence dream is to make virtual worlds exploitable for commercial gain. Others argue that we can escape into a brave new global village of egalitarian communication and community, such that we transcend the shackles of the physical body and its cultural codes, as well as communicate without cultural barriers. But are we so free to construct life in a transcultural digital world? What does it mean to say one inhabits a virtual world? Who gets to inhabit and how is communication between the virtual participants who are physically and materially located somewhere else in geographical, social and cultural space locally organised? Given that these digital virtual environments often support a strong sense of sociality and community despite their crudeness, and that they are created and maintained in and through interactional, semiotic and linguistic practices, and that they are likely to have a profound effect on society and (inter)cultural practices, then we need to study them critically and prudently, yet with an engaging curiosity.
1. The two images can be found at the following Web address on the Internet: