In the presentation of self in text-only media, one is not recognized by one’s physical appearance, but through one’s verbal behaviors. Obviously, one might offer a description of one’s persona or disclose personal characteristics that contribute to others’ impression formations. Yet according to Mark Giese (1998), there is another way that people come to identify an individual as participants interact with one another. “In a sense I am ‘recognized’ by a host of personal markers that include my writing style, my .sig [signature attachment], the way I conduct myself with various members of the groups and my contribution to the cooperative narrative.” In short, both what people say about themselves and how they behave with others contribute to a perception of personal identity online. The use of language is consequently of immense importance in cyberspace, for it is through the use of language that people construct their identities.
Language is thus the primary vehicle for establishing one’s own and perceiving another’s online persona. A term for such figures originated among fantasy gameplayers and embraced among CMC practitioners is avatar. An avatar is a representation of oneself in a virtual environment, in other words, one’s alter ego or persona. If you’ve ever used Instant Messenger icons on America Online or created a signature file to attach to your outgoing e-mail messages, then you are already somewhat familiar with the process of employing an avatar online.
The selection of a rather unusual term to express the relationships between identity and cyberspace is perhaps justified by the unusual nature of the medium itself. As with all mediated environments, one does not have a body in the nonspace of cyberspace, only a representation of oneself, wholly constructed by individual choices. Even in the case of a handwritten letter, which is seemingly devoid of many nonverbal cues, readers (like handwriting experts) infer qualities about the person on the other end based on something (loops in letters, dotting of letters) other than the content of what is written. Only in cyberspace is the proverbial playing field levelled of such biasing cues, suggesting that a new type of representation is occurring in this context.