John Suler's The Psychology of Cyberspace

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Seductive Avatars

Frontal nudity, including uncovered breasts, are not permitted at the Palace. Offenders first are warned by wizards, prop-gagged (forced into the standard smiley), and, if necessary, disconnected from the server. Adapting to these house rules, some users create avatars of partially naked or scantily clothed figures. Mischievious members sometimes push the envelope by wearing avs that test the limits and ambiguities of the rules. Supreme court justices have had a hard time defining what is pornographic, so the task has been no easier for the officials who run the EC sites. Even though the rules have become very specific about what body parts can and cannot be visible in an av, borderline cases always pop up (see The Bad Boys of Cyberspace).

Female seductive avatars tend to be more common than male - although these female avs sometimes are "manned" by male users (see "Male Gender-Switching in Cyberspace") . In fact, the general impression among members is that males are more likely to prop up as females, especially seductive females, than women dressing up as males.

Members usually wear seductive avs to draw attention to themselves. This works very well. Male users, especially guests, quickly flock to a sexy female form. The owner may be interested in harmless flirting, or (less frequently) be advertising his or her availability for cybersex. I heard one story about someone's office friend who, when frustrated on the job, says "I need a Palace break" He then signs onto the Palace dressed as a sexy female and lures guys into bedrooms. Being sexy not only gets you attention. It also gives you power and control over others.

Some people wearing seductive avs wish to be admired as an attractive, sexy individual, without necessarily being interested in flirting or cybersex. "I have some very sexy stuff given to me by friends (all men!)," said one female member. "What do they say about me? Not quite sure, except that I would love to be younger and more beautiful and some of my avatars are that indeed."

The competition in creating and displaying props is especially visible for seductive avatars. "It's interesting how some of the women at the Palace are getting into more and more elaborate sexy props. Almost as if it's a contest," noted one member. "But then, some of the guys too are into 'comparing' props!" For men, the competition usually involves power props, rather than seductive ones. As one member stated, "the stag with the biggest rack thing, ey?"

A seductive, sexy, or simply "attractive" avatar can have a powerful impact on other members. One member described how his prop of a cartoon animal didn't seem to be getting him much attention from females. Most of them wouldn't talk to him. Curious about whether he could alter this situation, he searched the net and found a picture of Brad Pitt which he turned into a prop. The result?... Lots of attention. If he happened to be wearing his cartoon prop and found that he was being ignored by a woman, he would move to another room, switch to Brad Pitt, and then return. Or he would switch to Pitt right in front of her. Nine times out of ten, he said, the woman would strike up a conversation with him even if he hadn't said a word. He even established a relationship with someone who eventually wanted to meet him face-to-face. "The pic got her attention," he concluded, "but in the end it was me that won her over." The curious thing about this phenomenon is that members KNOW that people are not their avatars. Just because a prop is pretty to look at doesn't mean that the user is. Nevertheless, that seductive av has tremendous drawing power. Perhaps some people enjoy the illusion of interacting with (and hopefully winning over) an attractive person. Perhaps, as many critics of contemporary culture claim, some people can't resist the temptation of superficial appearances, despite knowing better. Or perhaps some people are just curious, "Who *IS* that person using that sexy av?"

Other members may display seductive avs simply to be admired for their skill in knowing how to create a seductive av. Because the Palace often feels like an ongoing party where people are going to flirt, playfully compete, vie for attention, and strut their stuff, it is almost a prerequisite that every experienced member owns a seductive av of some type. "Getting away with something" is an intrinsic component of the Palace culture, as Bumgardner intended. Having at least one seductive av is a cultural must.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. As one member said, "I don't really think that sexy type props are for me, just wouldn't be a true representation of what I'm about."

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