The Internet has left us not quite ourselves. Half of San Francisco and Brooklyn, it suddenly seems, wishes they were high school students in the '50s. The other half would rather be in a Japanese manga graphic novel. This urge to be someone slightly different has been capitalized on by two websites: FaceYourManga and Yearbook Yourself. The market need is obvious: For every social network you join, you need a profile pic, lest you be marked as an outcast with an anonymous default image. Drunken party snapshots do the trick for MySpace. But the pressure to find the perfect photo has led some down rather odd roads in an idealized quest for a better, cuter self. These profile pictures say, "This is me, but not really me."Jason Kottke, a popular blogger, wrote about the Yearbook Yourself site on Sunday. Ev Williams, the founder of Twitter, soon adopted an Eisenhower-era look on his site, even as he complained about the trendiness of FaceYourManga. His colleague at Twitter, Biz Stone, was an early adopter of the manga look last week. A Twitter user, Vishy Venugopalan, notes that it's too late to go manga, and has followed Williams on the Yearbook trend. This is fashion, of course, nothing more and nothing less. Countless startups have sprung up around the idea of blinging your "avatar," the fancy word entrepreneurs like to use for one's online depiction of self. But no one seems to be making money off this trend. Yearbook Yourself, improbably, was offered up by a chain of shopping centers, which advertises some of the apparel chains in its malls on the site. FaceYourManga only says that it is "property of Pixelheads," which appears to be some kind of Web design operation. The profile-pic generator is nothing new. A Simpsons avatar generator was popular last year. Nintendo's Wii uses "Mii" avatars, whose manga-lite stylings became popular even off the videogame console. But the two new sites show that demand is spreading. There may not be a market in this, but there is a mania. What we lose is any sense of who we're dealing with online. Unreal avatars serve to further the breakdown of online manners, and personal boundaries. It's easier to flirt with, or insult, a manga character or a black-and-white Photoshop job than a real person. Of course, our online friends never really were our friends, were they? Look at them: They're just funny pictures, acquaintances as trading cards. Collect them all. (Profile pics by ev, biz, caroline, and midtownninja)
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