Avatars, Alter Egos and Ventriloquists’ Dummies: Voice and Vicariousness Online

In Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives Sidonie Smith & Julia Watson assert that “no ‘I’ speaks except as and through its others.” True of ‘analogue’ autobiographies, this assertion only becomes more resonant in the context of digital self-presentation. When users of digital media ‘express themselves’, they often borrow other bodies, faces, words and voices to do so. Twitter users deploy emojis, reaction GIFs and memetic stock characters to convey their feelings; YouTubers roleplay as their videogame avatars; bloggers on Tumblr create pseudonymous accounts to share private thoughts; ‘alt-right’ fascists conscript cartoon frogs into racist propaganda campaigns. Even when we are apparently speaking for ourselves, the boundaries of those selves may be blurred, whether by the use of hashtags and phrasal templates designed to foster affiliation, or by the ‘smart compose’ software now co-authoring much of our correspondence.

My research explores the implications of such phenomena for understandings of identity, looking at how new technologies are reconfiguring the relationship between self-expression and roleplay, individual authorship and collaboration. It addresses the work of artists, theorists, musicians and game designers who are investigating forms of distributed and vicarious agency while interrogating the power dynamics that determine who gets to speak and act for (and as) whom online.

This research has focused on two overlapping areas: digital avatars and the networked voice. Much of my work on avatars has centred on gaming culture, considering how videogames have become vehicles for new kinds of autobiographical narrative (like Nina Freeman’s ‘desktop simulator’ Cibele, which recounts her romance with a fellow player of a massively-multiplayer online roleplaying game), how games mediate digital technology’s reformulation of identity, and the role gaming plays in works of life writing like Keith Stuart’s autobiographical novel A Boy Made of Blocks (in which a father bonds with his autistic son by playing Minecraft with him over the internet).

My voice research, meanwhile, has sought to supplement accounts of online identity focused on the textual and the visual by foregrounding networked sound and speech, showing how digital media instantiate different understandings of the voice (variously framed as biometric signature, commodity, affective modulator or repertoire of characteristic traits, tendencies and tics susceptible to mimicry or reverse engineering). It has also seen me investigating ‘ASMR’ culture, using videos created by ‘ASMRtists’ (whose voices are held to have calming, even healing, properties) to chart the circulation of ideas, aesthetics and forms of capital in algorithmic culture.

Somewhere between the two, my work on grime music has looked at the genre’s incorporation of sounds and images from digital games. Often using videogame characters as lyrical avatars in autobiographical verses, grime MCs give voice to diasporic identities while indexing glocal cultural flows.

This research has been complemented by collaborative projects that have sought to contextualize current developments in digital culture by seeking precedents and parallels in earlier phases of media history. One such project, undertaken with Victorianist Ana Parejo Vadillo, saw us addressing online afterlives of poetic collaborators Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper (aka Michael Field), drawing comparisons between their use of figures from Renaissance art as mouthpieces for queer dysphoria and the aesthetic strategies of contemporary networked subcultures; another, with artist Janina Lange, used the biographies of two Gaiety Girls (stars of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century London theatre world) as the basis for an inquiry into histories of mediation, self-branding and gendered performance, resulting in the creation of a pop-up motion capture studio.



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Prior to joining the Ego Media team, Rob worked as a postdoctoral fellow at Concordia University’s Technoculture, Art and Games... read more about: Robert Gallagher