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  Using Avatars
In Korea, it's very popular to use avatars in communicating with each other online. Do avatars really help more users to register on a site? How about the prospect of using avatars?

Thank you so much for your question.

First, we would like to provide a basic introduction to avatars. Avatars provide the means for users to add to their profile or be depicted by a symbol, picture or other form of visual means online. In their simplest and static form avatars can be basic icons chosen by a user to indicate an aspect of themselves in instant messages, message boards or chat. In more complex ways, avatars are also used in some of the more immersive chat communities to provide the means to visually indicate interests, moods, expressions and so on, often with the ability to "move" the avatar around those communities. In many cases, avatars are set up by the community owners and their users are asked to choose from that list. For example, in a music community you might be given the choice of a selection of avatars to indicate what kind of music you prefer. Also common, although more likely in message boards and simpler forms of chat, users may be encouraged to upload their own pictures or graphic to use as their avatar.

Avatars can often be a fun aspect of joining a community - and oftentimes considered a novelty. However, whether they encourage people to register on a site really depends on the site and the type of communication being offered. For example, a business community would probably not be as interested in using them as a teenagers' site would.

Avatars can also enhance the exchange between users by giving each of them a visible persona. However, there are times when avatars might detract from communication. For example, seminars and guest events where you really want your community users to be concentrating on the speaker and on asking questions rather than attempting to select an appropriate avatar. Even on a message board, avatars (especially animated ones) can be distracting and serve to clutter up what is essentially an information and communication space.

If users are able to upload and use their own avatars, it may be important to screen each avatar before it can be used. The size of the avatar should be limited, the available formats restricted (i.e., do not allow the possibility of malicious code being uploaded) and unpleasant or sexually explicit avatars be removed. All these areas could create problems and discourage users from utilizing the chat or message board facilities.

As mentioned prior, avatars provide users with an identity in what can be a "faceless" venue. This can help to stimulate the conversation and increase the potential for users getting to know one another. Avatars provide a means for people to identify with one another based on the avatars they use. In some forums, users enjoy being able to create or use personal pictures that represent themselves and tell others a bit about their interests.

Used wisely and in conjunction with an audience which is likely to be sympathetic, avatars do add dynamicism to your chat and/or board environment and add extra appeal to your community. So ask yourself:

1. Is my audience of the type that might benefit or enjoy avatars?
2. How and where will the avatars be used?
3. Am I going to allow users to create their own avatars?
4. What controls will I have over the content of avatars?
5. How can I maintain a balance between the avatars and the rest of the communication/content?

Avatars have a long way to go before they can be considered a community essential. In the future it is possible that they will become more engaging and less novel, and serve to reinforce communication rather than detract from it. After all, in real-life our facial expressions, gestures, and body positions are not replacements for communication. Rather they supplement and provide additional confirmation for those we are talking to.

We hope this has helped to answer your question and we wish you the best of luck with your community!

- Jon Nix and Pam Thomas
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