Drawing on the work of Raymond Williams, this paper examines avatar culture through the interplay of emergent and residual forces. A dual process is at work in the formation of cultural identities in which the enabling conditions of virtual worlds are understood alongside and in relation to pre-existing off-line phenomenon. Avatar culture confirms structure for participants, especially in relation to gender and sexuality, whilst at the same time providing a reflexive space to break with pre-existing features of social identity. Virtual environments are thus microcosms of a grounded cultural materiality that is simultaneously improvised on and transformed. With regard to the distinctive aspects of avatar culture the paper focuses on issues of narrative, representation, censorship and power relations and their formation within virtual worlds. It discusses how virtual worlds incrementally acquire a peculiar power and meaning in the lives of participants. The paper discusses the flows of social interaction in virtual environments and how intermittence best describes how users participate and withdraw from different encounters. Avatar culture binds people together temporarily and loosely and then frees them up to relocate themselves elsewhere. In this context, virtual environments might be regarded as putting structure and power into movement. The ethnographic approach adopted helps peel back the residue of social structure to reveal a virtual agency with its emerging shells of avatar-derived affiliations, tensions and conflicts.
Information, Communication and Society Vol. 4, Issue 4, p. 560-594