Avatars and Computer-Mediated Communication: A Review of the Uses and Effects of Virtual Representations

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Kristine L Nowak
Jesse Fox


Avatars are growing in popularity and are present in many interfaces used for computer-mediated communication including social media, ecommerce webpages, and organizational applications. Despite their prevalence, the Communication literature lacks a systematic evaluation of existing research on avatars. An examination of this literature reveals similarities but also notable discrepancies in conceptual definitions and operationalizations. Further, research situates avatars across several facets of the basic communication model: as senders and receivers, as an aspect of the channel, and as a form of feedback. Our review synthesizes previous research in four areas. First, we examine how scholars have conceptualized the term “avatar” and identify similarities and differences across these definitions. Next, we examine research that has sought to explain avatar selection and design. Here, we review both motivations in CMC contexts (such as self-presentation and identity expression) and potential effects (i.e., the Proteus effect). Following, we review theoretical perspectives on avatar perception (e.g., the computers as social actors framework). Then, we examine avatar characteristics that communicators evaluate. We identify ways in which communicators evaluate the humanity of an avatar (anthropomorphism, form realism, behavioral realism, and perceived agency) and discuss implications for communication outcomes. We also review findings on the social categorization of avatars, such as when people apply categories like sex, gender, race, and ethnicity to their evaluations of virtual representations. Finally, we consider future directions for avatar research. From a research perspective, we also argue for avatars not just as a topic of study, but also as a tool for understanding other elements of human communication. Avatar-mediated environments provide researchers with a number of advantageous technological affordances that can enable manipulations that may be difficult or inadvisable to execute in natural environments. We conclude by discussing the use of avatar research to extend communication theory and our understanding of communication processes.

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Author Biographies

Kristine L Nowak, University of Connecticut

Kristine L. Nowak is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Connecticut. She is interested person perception, identity, persuasion, and information processing, and how these processes are influenced by the way the message is presented, with particular attention to the influence of the avatar and how these processes change with the use of social media and new technologies. Several projects have examined how individual differences such as racism and sexism influence avatar perception, and how the perception of those avatars influence identification and self-concept as well as person and message perception. Her research on human computer interaction evaluates systems and makes recommendations for the best type of system design for different messages or goals as well as how the use of specific systems for learning and persuasion. She has also examined the effect of multitasking and constant connectivity on learning and relationship development. Her work has been published in several journals including the Journal of Computer Mediated CommunicationComputers and Human BehaviorJournal of CommunicationMedia Psychology, and Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments.

Jesse Fox, The Ohio State University

Jesse Fox (M.A., University of Arizona; Ph.D., Stanford University) is an Assistant Professor in the School of Communication at The Ohio State University and Director of the Virtual Environment, Communication Technology, and Online Research (VECTOR) Lab. Her research interests include avatars, agents, and persuasive virtual environments, particularly in the contexts of health communication and environmental communication. Papers and additional information are available at http://commfox.org