Saturday, April 18, 2009

Why Face is Hard to Understand

In choosing to title an item about avatars in Newsweek magazine "Our Imaginary, Hotter Selves," it's clear that mainstream media reporting still clumsily bungles describing one of the basic features of online experience, the importance of "face" in its broader sense the ways that it goes far beyond one's physical apparearance in digital culture. Although the article cited research by Stanford's Jeremy Bailenson and Nick Yee about the "Proteus effect' in which changing one's avatar's morphology has an effect on real-life self-esteem and consequently presents possible therapeutic uses to those with emotional disorders, the article also contains generalizations about how "Western society sees taller people as more competent and having greater leadership potential than shorter people" that indicate a failure to understand how nuanced interactions on the Internet may be and the large number of operative clues at work.

Here's my thesis: we're in denial about the importance of face in American culture and about the role that ideas about character, prestige, and self-image play in our everyday interactions with each other. Based on my own experiences, both online and offline, I don't accept the idea that face is a concept that only defines cultures other than our own and only dictates the behavior of people in far-off places like China and Iraq. I'm tired of stereotypes that we are an “identity” culture, while others are “face” cultures and that our moral system is driven by “guilt,” while others are driven by shame. How many times are we told that Americans only value the “individual" and devalue the "collective"?

And yet our insatiable diet for etiquette manuals, books about negotiation, self-help bibles, and dating handbooks indicates that we seem to be repressing our national obsession with face. We care about being chosen as mates, friends, colleagues, and team members and understand those acts of inclusion and ranking as dependent on factors that are intangible and not related to measurable personal assets.

This is part of why I am so interested in research on politeness and communicating norms in online environments such as games and social network sites. For example, in Second Life, the main question isn't really "is my avatar as attractive as it should be?" but "does my avatar show that I'm not a n00b and know how to customize my appearance?" The latter has more to do with what I'm describing as "face."

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