Planning the Future – No Avatars Allowed

A couple weeks ago, my friend and colleague, Martin Brown, sent me an invitation to join The Foresight Network – a network according to their site: "helps members listen, learn and to help each other anticipate change, explore next practice, find new opportunities to collaborate and to co-create the future." As anyone who has read my blog knows, I am very interested in using online tools such as these networks to meet others in my field or related industries. So I immediately accepted the invitation and uploaded the information that I have on all the other networks that I have joined.

Up to today, I had looked forward to my participation in this network. There appeared to be other government professionals and the chance to really discuss how we are moving forward in so many areas. This is the type of network I had been waiting for I thought. I had even met a woman from Australia who is planning a virtual event in Second Life that is more focused on my industry and very much looked forward to continuing a business relationship with her. However, today I received a message from the network's creator that the picture I used in my profile (which is of my Second Life avatar) was not acceptable to the other professionals, and I should instead use a real life photo.

Now, I have been visiting online forums, wikis, blogs, networks, etc, for quite some time as does my husband. They cover all topics and interests, and I have seen many different types of "avatars" or profile photos used by people. Not once have I ever heard that someone was told they had to use a real life photo. And the fact that someone who is trying to cultivate an online community that is focused on discussing and shaping the future is telling its members they have to use a real photo in order to be considered professional brings up many points for discussion.

First I want to point out that I completely understand the need to keep people from using photos that they would not show their mother, or using photos that are in direct opposition to the focus of the group (such as using a pro gun image on a gun control site). In my case, both of these issues did not apply.

So, one of the points is, how long are we going to insist on judging people based on how they physically look? I would have thought that the proliferation of online sites and discrimination suits was helping us move beyond that. I think this is a benefit of virtual worlds – everyone is judged only on their mind and their work. Not based on age, color, male/female, size, etc. Some people have said, well how do you really know they are who they say they are? I want to always ask, how do you know someone you just met on the street is who they say they are? They could be lying just as someone online could be lying. If I meet someone at an event, I don't ask to see their ID or call their employer to make sure they work there. I take their word. Why would we do otherwise online?

And anyway, in both cases, most people can be checked out through a quick search on Google. If you Google me, it appears there are two Pam Broviak people – one in Illinois (me) and one in Minnesota. If you are reading about a Pam Broviak who bowls and works in IT in Minnesota, that is not me. If you read about someone who is a registered professional engineer (which can be verified on the State of Illinois Web site) and who has written some articles, one of which was published in a book, and works at a city, that is me. All of this can be found online.

What I hesitate to put online is a real photo, although there are a few if you know specifically where to look. And here is a little story to tell you why: Last year we had some issues with our city Web site which eventually led me to a conversation with someone who made a very cryptic remark. He said something like, "I sure hope you don't have any photos of yourself or your family on the Internet." Then he went on to explain why and what people do with them. That was enough to make me more cautious about displaying myself all over the place for anyone to stumble across. And anyway, I spend all my time taking photos of my family and construction sites – this leaves little time to try to get my own photo taken. It is so much easier to use a representative picture.

The next point I wonder about is do you need to use a real life photo to be considered professional? Obviously for me, I don't care what anyone uses as long as it is something they would show their mother – I try to judge people based on their work and efforts. However, it would be interesting to see the opinions of others.

There are many other discussion points that could come of this, but what amazed me most of all was that this group was advertising that its focus was on shaping the future; unfortunately the outcome of this was that I felt that my vision of the future would not be acceptable to or even considered by them so I ended up leaving the network. And anyway, I can always talk to Martin in Second Life.


7 Replies to “Planning the Future – No Avatars Allowed”

  1. I use my avatar picture professionally as well. Here is why:

    1.) My career focused around Virtual 3D. So having a virtual 3D avatar is a way to both remind people of this and get people thinking about the future.

    2.) It is nobody’s business what I look like.

    3.) A way to quickly identify an individual on any number of social networks is useful. A blank image defeats the purpose.

    When signing up for more “professional” social networks (i.e. Linkedin) I did consider using my real picture. What is funny is that I didn’t because of my desire for people to be professional. Even if you have no idea what an avatar is, I would expect professional detachment when dealing with things like other’s clothing choice, skin color, hair style and personal image.

  2. A RL photo doesn’t add any value if it’s not verified and certified: it could portray anyone, right? and the network managers you’re writing about are not doing this.

    So their request doesn’t make sense to me. I don’t think this approach is going to spread.

  3. Pam – I am so sorry to hear this. I read your blog post within minutes of reading the winning entry to the New Scientist vision of the future competition:

    8 Jun 2058: So, from today, avatars have equal status in the workplace. Now, I’m not prejudiced. I couldn’t run my company without them: eight humans and (for the same running cost) about 500 virtual employees. Twelve are clones of me, which attend 3D online meetings, make policy decisions, interact with clients, give media interviews. (Even the BBC no longer insists on ‘real spokespeople only’.) They constantly update their reflections of my thinking by monitoring every word I say and computer key I type; an intrusion yes, but at least I can be in 13 places at once.

  4. Hi Pam,

    Laila here! And yes Laila is my Avatar’s name ;-). I agree with the comments already made, obviously those who made the request are not as innovative as they would like to think they are.

    As you know I have Avatar representation over the net, and I have had absolutely no trouble at all. For those that have made comment or question of the avatar they either commented it was cool or wanted to know how they could get one. ;-).

    At any rate, I wanted to comment on what an awesome writer you are. You really are a woman of many talents ;-). Unfortunately the group you were trying to join will never know that.

    Maybe you are suppose to join and be the catalyst that changes the entire organization ;-).

  5. I appreciate the comments related to this avatar issue – all are great points and illustrate how much discussion is really needed in this area. How ironic that the very day someone is getting an award for portraying the acceptance of avatars in our future, I am being encouraged to leave my avatar at home (safely tucked away in its folder on my computer). You are right Martin about how this whole episode illustrates the path we have yet to take to get to the future.

    I really liked the points brought up in the other comments also: Burhop is right – many of us are working in a virtual environment so it only makes sense to use our avatars and really it isn’t anyone’s business what we physically look like. And when I am interacting with someone on a professional basis, I do not expect them to be hung up on the fact that I am a woman or of a certain nationality or age or size.

    And I am sure, as Opensource points out, that this group is not verifying the “real life” photos so I am not sure why they are so focused on requiring a “real” photo. I suppose I could have uploaded a photo of someone on one of my construction sites – the group would have never known, but that would be deceptive. We choose our avatars to serve as a digital representation of ourselves – and we all have our own reasons for why they look the way they do. Because my avatar is who I chose, I feel that using that image is more of a true representation of myself than any other real life photo. Some people choose other types of avatars including photos of their pet, a landscape, their car – all images that they feel best represent what they are all about. Who are we to say they chose incorrectly.

    Finally, Laila, interacts with more people online than anyone I know through the use of an avatar, and she has never shared with me any issues caused by this. But how can I disagree with a woman who has just showered me with praise – you are too complimentary Laila! I feel fortunate to have you, along with all the others I only know through our avatars, as friends.

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