From AIM Avatar to SMS Bitmoji

Lisa Nakamura’s piece Digitizing Race introduces many interesting and thought provoking points. As someone who has been a technology user since childhood I can see the movement from a textual internet to an internet that shares photos and avatars. As Nakamura states “The primarily textual interest no longer dominates and in some cases no longer exists: many MOOs, MUDs and listservs have gone offline” (1) The benefit of the textual internet is one of anonymity. When you are a person sharing an idea via text, more often than not the ideas you are sharing are not read with the notion of your race, gender, sexuality, etc. unless explicitly mentioned. When avatars come into play, this changes things. This began as an animation where certain sub cultures use different avatar styles. Nakamura states: “..the popular internet and its depictions of racialized and gendered bodies”  (13). The internet offers many platforms for education and idea sharing among many other things. However, the value of said opinions varies based on who is saying it. 

In today’s modern internet, we no longer primarily operate on IM or AIM chat services. Our society engages more with facebook, twitter, instagram etc as our chosen means of internet communication. Beyond social media some may engage in reddit where a profile is not visible yet you can create your own avatar and username. The usernames and pictures we select to represent ourselves is crucial to how seriously or not we are taken in the internet community. 

Nakuma brings up the point: “The interface serves to organize race and gendered bodies in categories, boxes and links that mimic the mental structure of a normative consciousness and set of associations often white and male” (17). Previous to this class I was not aware of this internet bias, but after reading Lisa Nakumara’s excerpt my eyes were opened to the large bias of the internet. I think this is especially clear in opinion based forms such as reddit, quora and 4chan allow us as internet users to share their opinions. They can select usernames and pictures to express themselves and give the person reading their post a window into who is speaking to them. As we know in our culture, more often than not the white cis male perspective is taken most seriously. I wonder if people commonly try and hide or alter their identity on these platforms for the sake of being heard. 

 What interests me is the change from internet avatars in the early 2000’s to a more present from which is bitmoji. Bitmoji if you are unfamiliar is a service that allows you to create a digital selfie down to the race, gender, outfits, and even aurora. Today, Bitmoji is used in SMS messaging, facebook and even classroom settings. The app offers forty different skin tones which is an improvement from their previous twenty five. This is a pro in terms of representation yet in the internet community we exist in it is a flaw. As stated previously by Nakumara, “AIM buddies, pregnant avatars, and other user- created avatars allow users to participate in racial formation in direct and personal ways and to transmit there to large, potentially global audiences of users” (18). This allows people to use Bitmoji as they would use AIM avatars to display their image in the way they so please? 

Some questions that this made me think of are ones of personal use. In the classroom, would you encourage the use of avatars to allow children to express themselves freely and celebrate their culture? Or do you think it is more beneficial to leave it to the default image and allow them to exist anonymously on the internet? Does that help or hurt? I am also curious to know if anyone has felt oppressed in anyway by avatars, bitmoji, etc. Have you felt misrepresented, under represented or content with your experience? 

Digitizing race: visual cultures of the internet

Nakamura – University of Minnesota Press – 2008

7 Replies to “From AIM Avatar to SMS Bitmoji”

  1. Hi Allie. I liked a lot of the points that you made in your blog post. It really made me think of how we use social media has changed over the years. I really like how you mentioned AIM and bitmoji. It really demonstrates how our online world has changed over the years. I think something like bitmoji could be used in the classroom for children. I think the app is a good form of self-expression for children because it allows them to pick out clothes, hair styles, accessories, and more. I think the app could allow children to create their own version of themselves, see the differences between themselves compared to their classmates, and create their own kind of diversity community. This could be a fun way for students to celebrate diversity, and could be a teaching moment to show that we can be accepting to all the diversities in the classroom. Although I think bitmoji is a good fun way to promote diversity, it could also have some downsides to it. It could have negative effects for some students who don’t see their perfect version of themselves in the app. Nakamura states “The avatars that these women produce pose a problem for many upper- and intellectual-class viewers in that they are decidedly déclassé in terms of visual style, as is much of popular digital visual culture; they are cartoonish, “cutesy,” festooned with animated sparkles, flashing animated GIFs, pastel colors, and sentimental stylings taken from older media franchises like Care Bears, Disney, Hello Kitty, and Friends” (32). I think it is important for a teacher to remind students if they choose to use cartoon-based apps such as bitmoji to remind students that the app is just for fun and is more fictional. I think the app could make some students feel left out, but if this kind of technology is used in the right way it can be beneficial.

  2. Hi Allie,
    I agree with many of the points you made here in this post. The anonymity of places like chat rooms were ideal in that one could create a username, but truthfully it didn’t have to identify / relate to the person whatsoever. Even though from a young age we are taught to be careful of what we post online, more and more people are posting every thought and picture for the world to see. Not only that, but the internet encourages users to post their daily routines/thoughts/habits, as a way to brand oneself and create a more interesting social media presence.
    I found it interesting that you decided to focus on Bitmoji. I never thought of the idea of oppression associated with the avatars until your post and the reading, but now it makes complete sense; especially how Bitmoji just recently made more skin tones for the app. The ability to create these avatars gives many people the chance to represent themselves however they choose, especially for platforms like Snapchat where the bitmoji is one of the first things you see when looking at someones profile. Nakamura says, “When users create or choose avatars on the Internet, they are choosing to visually signify online in ways that must result in a new organization and distribution of visual cultural capital” (17). The creative freedom when it comes to designing a Bitmoji can be exciting for many, and I think it is a fun idea to incorporate into the classroom. I substitute teach at a local school, and the teachers created Bitmoji’s that looked just like their students as a small motivation before State Testing. It truly made the kids feel special, and equally represented in the classroom setting. I am an advocate for letting students choose whether or not they want anonymous online, but I support the use of Bitmoji’s and other forms of the avatars.

  3. I liked a lot of points in your blog post and it is interesting to see the ways that technology has changed over the years. When I was younger, I was told I wasn’t allowed to have a Facebook account because my parents didn’t want my face to be on the internet at such a young age. So instead of showing my face I would use apps that I didn’t need to I would use. I would play on my Xbox or my brothers PlayStation and you just had a username and a mic and you could say anything to a lobby of 2-20 people at once and if they had microphones then they could talk back not knowing anything about you other then your username and what you said in game. It wasn’t too friendly to say the least knowing that you are totally unaccounted for what you said. That’s why I’m glad that now there are Bitmoji and profile pictures on apps such as Instagram and Facebook so people can’t really hide behind a screen because I know who I am talking to while online. In the philosopher “Kelly Oliver’s words, “Color blindness is a symptom of racism. Rather than see and acknowledge racial difference, we would rather not see at all….” (3) This quote applies to my earlier statement because people wouldn’t know who they are talking to when online and they wouldn’t see color they would only see a screen and people would hide behind a screen which is why having profile pics and internet identity is a good thing. To answer your questions, I believe that teachers should conform to todays society instead of teaching the way they were taught because technology changes everything. I think that if teachers included the use of computers or other electronics in the everyday classroom then it would be beneficial for the students in many ways. I think that teachers are upset and stick to their old ways because its easier for them not to change their style of teaching. If I was to have technology included in my classrooms more in high school, then I feel like I would be a better student and would have more life-smarts and have a greater knowledge of the world. It would be beneficial for teachers if they were offered classes on different new learning styles that they could use each generation of students just to be sure that their teaching methods are up to par. Teaching should be taken seriously because you are shaping the minds of the future and if you are using out of date techniques then it may not be beneficial for all students.

  4. Hi Allie, I really enjoyed your post and you helped me realize some points I missed in the reading. Along with everything, technology has a lot of good and bad sides to it. I liked how you introduced your ideas with the point that if we were to share a text it would not be taken the same way as if we were to share that idea in person. We have advanced so much in technology and created a generation of addicted cell phone users that more often we share all of our ideas through a screen and not in person. Receiving a text from a new number, the way they come off is the way we judge their character from the start. Then we take their name and look them up on facebook or instagram to see what they look like and judge them as a whole before even meeting them. It’s for the most part sad but also an unconscious instinct that our generation has created. For most of reading I was thinking of instagram. Creating your profile is crucial to showing your character and making a good impression. Of course every instagram post is just the best picture out of twenty that a person took in a good moment of their life that doesn’t show their struggles. But that’s what all social media is, creating a false image of yourself so that when you are initially judged you can come off in a positive way. “Users comment vociferously on each other’s visual objects of self-representation.” (203). To me this quote kind of stood out to me as I am criticing society meanwhile I am guilty of it as well. As for your questions, I think that is where the good side of creating images of yourself comes in and think creating bitmojis inside a classroom is a great idea. I think it’s a good idea to allow children to express themselves and show who they are with this assignment, I think in a social media aspect that’s where downfalls come in.

  5. Hello Allie!

    I enjoyed reading your blog post and I liked how you connected the reading to virtual avatars and bitmojis. As I was reading your blog, it made me think of an article I recently read titled “Diversity Is Racist: The Absurd Reaction To Apple’s New Emojis”. When emojis were created, the human emojis only had one skin color of yellow. Then, Apple released a line of 5 other skin colors that started from white and darkened to black. This change created an unintentional racial tension behind screens. In the article “Diversity Is Racist,” a black person writes “because I’m black, should I now feel compelled to use the “appropriate” brown-skinned nail-painting emoji? Why would I use the white one? Now in simple text messages and tweets, I have to identify myself racially” (Blatt). This statement not only applies to emojis but also applies to bitmojis which are technically defined as a “personal emoji”. A plethora of people use bitmojis as a way to represent themselves through a virtual avatar. People also use emojis as a form of expression through texting and social media apps. Both expressions incorporate skin tone. On a broad level, this can be a great aspect because it creates diversity in the cyber world.

    Unfortunately, when we focus more closely on these two digital images, we find that racism can exist. Without even realizing it, our brains make judgments and assumptions based on images we see. If a person makes a tweet with only words, our mind jumps to see their profile picture. If they do not have one, we can only guess what the person behind the tweet looks like with nothing to go off of. However, the minute an emoji is tied to the tweet or a bitmoji is the profile picture, our minds begin to make judgments based on the skin color without us even realizing we are doing it.

    Finally, as a concluding thought, I would like to leave a quick personal story. When the bitmoji app embraced new skin colors, my boyfriend and I changed our bitmoji skin colors to a vibrant, rainbow purple. We thought it would be unique to change our skin color because normally people are accustomed to viewing a bitmoji as the human. Clearly, my boyfriend and I do not have a rainbow-colored skin; however, we wanted to press against the stereotypes and judgments that people are quick to have when they see someone’s skin color.

    Blatt, Mitchell. “Diversity Is Racist: The Absurd Reaction To Apple’s New Emojis.” The Federalist, 20 Apr. 2015,

  6. Hi Allie, you drew some really interesting parallels in this post that I hadn’t thought of before. I’m not sure whether or not I would encourage the use of avatars. Like you said, default images are signifiers which allow you to remain anonymous on the Internet. You wondered if people would try to hide their identity for the sake of being heard, and I don’t think many people do so intentionally. However, on sites such as reddit where you don’t see user profile images in their replies, there’s this tendency to assume everyone is a white man. I think anonymity has its uses on the internet, but I also think sometimes that anonymity plays on our bias to assume white men are the default. And if that’s the case, then remaining anonymous might grant you credibility on certain topics (not related to any othered identities) at the cost of erasing your representation as a credible person of color/lgbt person/woman.

    I can’t say I’ve ever felt oppressed by avatars, or Bitmoji, but I was witness to discourse when I was sixteen, surrounding a white fifteen year old and her identity on the internet. We were in a server with several other people of color, who tried to call her out for which characters she had featured on her tumblr as ones she related to. They pointed out those characters were mostly Black, or racially ambiguous characters who were drawn as Black women. At the time I didn’t understand what the big deal was, since she had never claimed she was a woman of color herself, but now I can understand why the other people took offense to her using mostly characters of color to represent her own identity. As Nakamura writes, “when users create or choose avatars on the Internet, they are choosing to visually signify online in ways that must result in a new organization and distribution of visual cultural capital,” (17). So her choice in how she represents herself on the internet had effects on how people perceived her, and her opinion in arguments and discourse on the platform.

  7. Thinking about my own life in terms of Bitmojis, I never really felt like any of them actually looked like me. So, when they first came out on iPhone’s I did the typical blonde hair and blue eyes, I feel like that is something that people remember the most about me. Over the summer I went back onto the Bitmoji app and realized they added more styles in every aspect. Different face shapes, hair, skin tone, glasses, etc… It seems like they had added a lot more, which made it easier for me to identify with them. Being checked as a female in the app before it made it so that I could only have “girly” outfits except for gym wear. That isn’t how I express myself so it made me happy when I logged back into it and they had many more outfits that weren’t just the normal gender binary. It’s nice to be able to self express in any way you want. My answer to your question is to let students express themselves, let them pick. Children growing up have such wild and beautiful minds, let’s do them justice and let them express themselves. They might not be able to do it at home, so why not make the classroom a safe and fun place for them to interact.

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