Why We Can’t Stop Looking At Our Own Avatars

MyIdol is more than just a fun time waster—it’s also opportunity for identity play.

April 24, 2015

The night before last, a Chinese app called MyIdol caught fire on the internet. I first caught wind of it yesterday morning, when the singer Samantha Urbani posted a video of a pretty perfect-looking, animated rendering of her own likeness to her Instagram feed, clad in a leather motor cycle get-up and face paint and singing a Chinese song in a raspy, male-sounding voice. The post included a caption—"I wish more than anything I could honestly tell u that this is my new song & music video"—cheekily comparing this strange online apparition to her recently released, long-awaited debut solo track. Somehow, by the time I'd arrived at the office that morning, MyIdol was already a "thing," complete with a cosign from Miley Cyrus and an introduction from BuzzFeed titled "Almost Everything You Need to Know About The Chinese App That Turns You Into A Cartoon."

Once everybody at The FADER office found out about it, the day became all about downloading MyIdol and navigating its maze of picture buttons and Chinese language instructions to figure out how to make it work. Taking advantage of the app's surprising ability to create a near-identical digital rendering of given subject's face—you take a photograph of yourself, or a photograph of a photograph of yourself, and some in-app image censors just do the work for you—Deputy Editor Duncan Cooper went down a veritable MyIdol rabbit hole, creating likenesses for Rihanna, Drake, Kanye, and pretty much any celebrity he could think of. For others (myself included), the day took a far less productive turn; so many people on the internet were trying to download the app at once that it took over an hour for me to download it to my phone, but once a few of us had it, we couldn't tear ourselves away, compulsively casting and recasting our own doppelgangers until they were finally recognizable as "us," passing our phones along so that our neighbors could do so as well.

I wish more than anything I could honestly tell u that this is my new song & music video
A video posted by Samantha Urbani (@samandude) on

I'd noticed a lot of people on my Facebook feed designing their own Bitmoji avatars a few months back—the "dropping the mic" cartoon seemed a favorite among many a stressed out and disgruntled music industry colleague—but this one felt like the real deal. You could rotate your avatar three-dimensionally in space to see what your face looked like from the side, or observe what you would look like if you worked up the guts to perform a booty drop while lip-synching the words to "SexyBack" in a strip club. Unlike the experience of looking in the mirror, you even could see the way the muscles around your face change when you blink. The idea of the customizable online avatar is nothing new (I have been casually experimenting with them since a short-lived Second Life obsession in the mid-00s, and The Awl just published a whole list of apps that allow you to mess around with your own image), but there's something special about MyIdol: from what I can tell, it's the first mass-market tool of its kind where you can create a doppelgänger that is believably you.

Back when I was writing last year's cover story on FKA Twigs, I spent a lot of time trying to wrap my mind around her affinity for distorting and manipulating her own body in her music videos—like inflating her head like a balloon, or hanging herself from the ceiling by a rope of her own hair, or, most recently, creating the convincing illusion that she was pregnant (with scarves). Perhaps because of her music's very intimate relationship to technology, I couldn't help reading these images as some kind of commentary on the possibilities of self-representation on the internet, noting in the story: "As we watch her shapeshift from one video to the next, her works begin to read like transmissions from a not-so-distant future in which one might physically transform into one's own cyberpunk avatar, a techno-utopia in which physical idiosyncrasies become magnified as strengths, and where beauty begins to be understood as a malleable combination of one's own masculine and feminine attributes."

Maybe that not-so-distant-future came sooner than I thought it would: be it intentionally or simply by the accident of its design, MyIdol seems to make this kind of performative, gender non-binary shape-shifting accessible to everyone. When you create a new avatar, you can choose between a basic "female" body type and a basic "male" body type, but both options allow you to select from the same generic pool of clothing and hair styles (some more traditionally "feminine," others more "masculine"). You can mess with the dimensions of your face and eyes, change your skin color to blue, prematurely age your face until it's covered in majestic-looking wrinkles, and strike the sort of unabashedly seductive poses you might not normally feel comfortable striking in real life. Viewed in a certain way, the appeal of an app like MyIdol is that it allows you to try on identities and disguises that you might not be able (or ready) to try on in real life. It represents the freedom to be whoever you want to be—if not in physical reality, than at least within the gravity-less, boundary-less, alternate reality of the internet. As Lena Dunham pointed out on Instagram this morning (along with four of her own MyIdol likenessness), avatars allow us to reconnect with the spirit of improvisation and make-believe that many of us lose the moment we grow up and start worrying about how we appear to other people: "Haven't been this happy since I got Myst in 4th grade."

Of course, for the time being, MyIdol seems to be much more about giggles to most people than anything so serious as the politics of self-representation. Knowing how the internet works, we'll probably be talking about some new funny app-meme come next week, but I do think that MyIdol speaks to a paradoxical urge that we all feel as humans sometimes: the desire to see ourselves as we appear in other people's eyes, but also to resist others' stifling pre-conceptions of who we should be. Before MyIdol came around, digital avatars had always made me think of the "uncanny valley" effect, which holds that when something looks almost real, but not quite, the result is a sort of reflexive and unwitting revulsion. Take a look at the scores of MyIdol images that have been crowding your Facebook and Instagram feed over the past few days, and you'll notice something different this time around: for the most part, we're all positively transfixed. Maybe the technology has just gotten better, or maybe we're just used to spending most of our time projecting ourselves outward onto cyber-space, but it's like they're no longer creepy-looking almost-likenesses of who we are in real life: they're us. Now we just have to use our imagination and figure out how to make them ours.

Lead image: MyIdol versions of FADER staffers, from left to right, Liz Raiss, Emilie Friedlander and Patrick D. McDermott.

Why We Can’t Stop Looking At Our Own Avatars