Shaping online avatars: Why our digital identities differ

2022/08/15 Innoverview Read

We want to see a greater number of options for body type, gender identity, disabilities and types of clothing when appearing online, according to a new global study of 6,000 people by the Institute of Digital Fashion. 

The study, being published soon, aims to better understand what people want their avatars to look like and wear, and offer insight for fashion brands looking to cater to a customer that spends time and money in digital worlds, particularly Gen Z customers. Half of the participants were between 18 and 24, while the other half were between 25 and 54.

Almost 60 per cent feel there is a lack of inclusivity in virtual worlds and more than 40 per cent describe their online clothing style as “surreal,” meaning not the same as their in-person identities, the study found. Nine per cent of respondents identify outside the gender binary, a significant percentage; recent research from The Williams Institute suggests that 1.2 million Americans, or just 0.36 per cent, reportedly identify outside the gender binary. The concept of virtual worlds encompasses digital platforms within which users can create and present an identity in digital form; this can include immersive spaces like Roblox, Fortnite and brand-created games; social media AR filters; and personal avatar services like Bitmoji, Ready Player Me and Apple’s Memoji.

When it came to fashion, IoDF’s research found that 92 per cent of people report that customisation is important when creating virtual avatars. The range of desired types of clothing reflect the range of styles people want in virtual spaces: with surreal (24 per cent), casual (20 per cent) and couture (15 per cent). Religious garments were especially important to offer, according to Leanne Elliott Young, co-founder of the IoDF, which also conducted a number of in-depth, one-on-one interviews. Almost 60 per cent said that their “URL” style was similar to, or the same as, their “IRL style,” with 40 per cent preferring a more “surreal” style.

Brands are increasingly partnering with metaverse platforms to provide digital clothing and creating their own virtual spaces and customisable avatars. Tapping into what people want — and offering options that aren’t currently available — offers a chance to become more relevant to online consumers. This is especially true when appealing to Gen Z. “Gen Z is ushering in an identity revolution. Every individual person has the right to create their own identity that is distinct and separate from the conditions of their birth,” says AnneMarie Hayek, founder and president of cultural consultancy Global Mosaic and author of the recently published book, Generation We: The Power and Promise of Gen Z. According to Hayek’s research, one-third of Gen Z in the US identify outside the gender binary, and one-half are non-white.

Hayek adds that by 2030, the spending power of Gen Z in the US will surpass the spending power of millennials and boomers. “Even now, with a median age of 17 and only $143 billion in spending power, their influence on culture and how we represent gender, race, ethnicity, body shapes and sizes — and their influence on fashion — is so significant.”

The research was inspired, in part, by a project with the Circular Fashion Summit to develop avatars for its virtual conference, says Young. “We realised that we had such a responsibility that anyone who comes to the summit feels as though they were represented, but we didn't actually have the answers as to what it means to be represented and what people care about when entering that space.” As part of the research, the institute is releasing a digital collection, which is non-gendered and includes garments such as the shayla, which is a head scarf.

Often, Young says, “we found that not only were the bodies very sexualized, but there were very limited in who you could be — it was generally white, able-bodied individuals would be able to craft a version of themselves”. Additionally, she says, as more people spend time in digital spaces to escape and explore beyond reality, “the other question we asked was how important it is to be able to represent yourself 100 per cent”.

Skin and appearance

While 29 per cent of survey respondents said that escapism was the main objective for entering virtual worlds, people still want the option and the ability to create an idealised, representative version of themselves within those worlds, Young says. More than 40 per cent of respondents identified as non-white, and 87 per cent say their digital identities coordinate with their “IRL” identities. Ninety-two per cent said customisation is important, and facial features, skin tone and body shape were more important than clothing. When asked if they felt that minority groups were under-represented in virtual spaces, 68 per cent said “yes” and 22 per cent said “maybe”.

One conclusion is that creating a “blue” skin tone is not an appropriate solution to inclusivity, Young says, because offering just a single color “would equate to white in the same way The Simpsons are viewed as white”. Instead, respondents suggested a full color wheel that enables people to select any colour. One Black woman surveyed said that it was particularly important to represent herself, given that few Black women exist in those spaces.

“We had to go back to the drawing board,” says Lorenzo Albrighi, co-CEO and founder of Lablaco, a blockchain-enabled circular fashion platform that hosts its Circular Fashion Summit in virtual reality, which people attend as avatars. This year the theme is “redesigning society”, so digital representation is one of the most important aspects, Albrighi says. Starting with the digitisation process of the human body, we went deep in trying to understand what it means to bring humans inside of the metaverse.”

Another finding of the study is that 60 percent of respondents were concerned about the increase of potential bullying and discrimination against disabled individuals. However, Young says, respondents who have physical disabilities wanted that to be part of their avatar’s representation, such as having a wheelchair.

“When we talk about diversity, Gen Z think about it so much more broadly than previous generations,” Hayek says. She points to Bitmoji, the Snapchat-owned avatar-creation platform, which recently introduced wheelchair Bitmoji stickers. “Our community’s response has been overwhelmingly positive and we’re continuing to work closely with our users on future accessibility options and inclusive features,” a company spokesperson told Vogue Business. “Our ongoing efforts to create avatar content and products that reflect the diversity of our community range from the hairstyles and clothing options that we offer to larger inclusivity projects. 

Beyond binary

When it comes to gender, there's a big split between accuracy and imagination, Young says. In part, that is because some worry that if they shared their preferred pronouns, they would be subject to trolling or targeting. The same goes for wearing religious garments, the research found, although people were more clear in their desire to wear and display these garments than they were to display their pronouns. “It shows that there's still a lot of fear in and even in our digital realm, there is a specific bias,” Young says. 

To increase visibility, the IoDF partnered with Daz Productions to create a non-binary, photorealistic double of IoDF co-founder Catty Tay, and to create a representative board of advisors, amid industry-wide criticism that gender-based presets are often “very binary”. “Instead of this white male creating a person of colour as an asset or an avatar, there's a board of individuals who now work with them to counsel them, from the cultural backgrounds that they are representing. It shifts the conversation from characterisation to representation,” Young says. The Circular Fashion Summit avatar experience changed the gender selection process during sign-up to let people type in their gender. In creating the avatar bodies, it created three base body-types, without labeling them in any way, and enabled full freedom of customisation. For example, one could select a more “masculine” head on a “feminine” body.

“We desperately need tech leadership to reflect people from all kinds of gender identities, sexual orientations, racial and ethnic backgrounds, religious identities, and levels of ability to eradicate toxic work environments and start creating diverse, inclusive digital identities,” says Breanna Kilpack, a production coordinator at Daz Productions, which specialises in 3D human models. “We also need people from privileged identities to recognise the inequality and leverage their advantages to reach equity in digital development access and representation. In a digital world where anything we can imagine is real, there is no excuse for excluding anybody.”


Clothing in the metaverse is highly personal, resulting in people paying to wear unique outfits that they change frequently. On Roblox, aesthetic representation and level of engagement are closely intertwined, meaning users who invest time in heavily customising their avatars tend to be most engaged, while the avatars that haven’t been as heavily customised tend to be less engaged, according to the company. One-fifth of Roblox’s daily active users — or 8.6 million — update their avatar on any given day, which points to the importance of self-expression.

There is still room for improvement, such as the ability to layer various items of digital clothing as one does in the physical world. At last week’s Roblox Developer Conference, the company announced an upcoming “Layered Clothing Studio” beta launch that allows a “combinatorial explosion of possibilities in customising your avatar”, according to a spokesperson, as any body can be outfitted with layered clothing items and will adjust to the avatar’s shape. This release “represents an important stepping stone in a long line of innovations to improve the expressiveness and combinatorics in the metaverse,” the spokesperson said.

Traditional and religious garments were an important consideration at this year’s Circular Fashion Summit, especially because of its international attendees. This year, for example, the Saudi government’s fashion commission plans to attend, so Lablaco was mindful of specific guidelines that would be offensive to break, Albrighi says.

On 9 December, the Circular Fashion Summit will debut its new avatars and options created in collaboration with the IoDF. For perhaps the first time at a virtual conference, Young says, people will have to choose between replicating their casual work-from-home attire virtually, or wearing flamboyant formal attire — or changing their looks as they go on stage. “It's a thing that we've never had to consider before,” Young says.

(Copyright:Vogue Business Shaping online avatars: Why our digital identities differ | Vogue Business)