The New Rules of Self-Expression

As the web is entering a new, three-dimensional era, its influence on our self-expression is rapidly evolving, resulting in new demands and expectations from brands.
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The New Rules of Self-Expression

Online social platforms have long been facilitating the creation of digital identities. But whilst many studies have pointed out social media’s damaging effect on its users’ self-esteem due to constant comparison and promotion of unrealistic beauty and lifestyle standards, the opposite is becoming apparent for the embodied web. In fact, the majority of people active in virtual worlds (from gaming to AR, VR, and MR) feel more like themselves online than they do IRL. But why is that and what does it mean for the role that brands play in facilitating their audiences’ self-expression?

How we got here

With half of the world’s population now actively participating in virtual worlds, we can no longer ignore their mainstream-level impacts on how we perceive and express ourselves. 

Virtual worlds give half of us the freedom to be anyone and anything we want. Sure, people have had the opportunity to explore their alter egos online ever since chat rooms became a thing (the whole premise of MTV’s show Catfish is based on this behaviour alone, spotlighting its more dangerous side). But we’re no longer pretending to be someone else on the Internet. Rather, we’ve collectively agreed that we now have these shared online spaces where we get to exist freely as versions of ourselves that we don’t get to show IRL. We’re not trying to fool anyone - it’s a mutual understanding that we’re all here to live out our individual fantasies.

Today, avatars are becoming a key part of the full picture of our authentic selves — in a recent study, 76% of respondents said they want their avatar to express their individuality in ways that they can’t offline, and over half said they feel it would be easier for them to be their true, authentic self in a digital world. It’s worth mentioning that this new canvas for self-expression has its benefits beyond just satisfying people’s creative cravings. A recent study revealed that trans and gender diverse youth report considerable therapeutic benefits of using avatars to explore, develop and rehearse their experienced gender identities, often as a precursor to coming out in the offline world.

Goodbye performativity, welcome to the era of genuine experimentation

So, just like our social media profiles, our avatars are aspirational versions of ourselves. Except in virtual worlds, we’re free from the pressures of performing a curated, coherent and perfected version of our real-world selves. Instead, we get to try on different versions of ourselves and then navigate online spaces embodying these alter egos. In no way are we limited to sticking with our physical features, our current wardrobe, or socioeconomic status. We get to build out our avatars from scratch and reinvent their features at any point we like. Here, trying out an entirely new aesthetic, which would usually feel completely outside of our comfort zone, carries no consequences (except maybe a few bucks lost on wearables).

South Korean Metaverse social app Zepeto is exactly that. This early case study of the future of social ahead of us lets people assemble characters, create social profiles for them, capture and post photo and video content and explore thousands of virtual spaces for gamified socialising. When you’re not used to this format, going on Zepeto might feel like scrolling through TikTok on acid — instead of people, you’ll see all kinds of avatars doing dance challenges, daily vlogs, audio trends; you name it.

The interesting thing emerging from our increasingly more embodied online selves is that it allows us to embrace the multifaceted and ever-evolving nature of our identities. Whilst traditional social media forced us to perform a coherent, hyper curated - and often ‘beautified’ - version of ourselves, virtual worlds empower us to each day show up in a way that feels authentic to us at the given moment. 

The three-dimensional cyberspace is where the concept of fluid identities truly comes to life. Half of Roblox players make changes to their avatar at least once every week, with almost a quarter updating at least once every day. 58% of money spent on Fortnite goes to skins and characters. And with 2.4 billion items sold and purchased on Zepeto’s creator marketplace alone, it’s clear that the demand for a wide range of digital skins, clothing, hairstyles and accessories shows no sign of slowing down. The opportunities for ever-evolving identity expression and expansive selfhood offered by virtual worlds are undoubtedly empowering online audiences more than curated feeds and face filters.

Where rules of wearability don’t apply

While the pandemic-induced embrace of comfort and casual wear became the new norm for a large portion of the population, our URL styles continue to evolve towards a more expressive direction. The opportunities for creative expression in the embodied web are truly limitless.

There is no gravity, no social norms, no sense of obligation to represent yourself even remotely close to who you are in real life. If anything, it’s actually quite the opposite. The default standard is more fantasy than everyday wear. Research conducted by the Institute of Digital Fashion found that the most popular way people describe their URL aesthetic preferences is “surreal” (selected by 44% of respondents). After all, why would you opt for a pair of sweats if you could wear an ethereal dress made of water that changes colour depending on your mood? This is a place for our imaginations to thrive!

Overall, it’s likely we’ll see this preference for extravagant, out-of-the-comfort-zone self-expression evolve even further in the near future, as more and more online creators get their hands on 3D and AI tools that are becoming increasingly more accessible and easier to use. A couple of weeks ago, an AI-generated image of Pope Francis wearing a Balenciaga-style puffer jacket spread across every corner of the Internet. It’s just a matter of time before we start seeing entirely new aesthetics ignited by AI creations.

But will all this stay just in cyberspace? As we all know by now, the Internet has a proven record of influencing our IRL expression and taste. And we’re already seeing 3D creators kick-start digital trends that found their way to people’s real-life expression. The work of AR creator Ines Alpha, known for her cyber futuristic, flowy AR lens creations, has indirectly contributed to a recent TikTok makeup trend featuring hot glue and chrome eyeshadows.

TikTok hot glue eyeliner trend

Recently we’ve also seen the IRL influence of the increasingly more dimensional era of the Internet reach a ridiculous level with the viral MSCHF Big Red Boots — or what ArtReview referred to as “2D-looking boots for a 3D world, designed to be viewed largely in 2D on people’s screens”.

But as Internet trends continue to get more extravagant and remain influential in shaping our tastes, their real-life expressions are starting to lose functionality. By definition, they are meant to stay in the digital world, where the concepts of fit and day-to-day wearability don’t exist. Realistically, very few of us will actually commit to trying out any of these looks in the physical world, where comfort (and not looking absolutely ridiculous) do matter. So, regardless of this continuous evolution of our digital self-expression, it’s likely that our IRL extravagance will remain limited to small nodes to our URL explorations — say through make-up, accessories or nail-art.

Mara Paris

So what does this all mean for your brand?

Recognise that how you show up online and how you show up IRL require increasingly different and more nuanced approaches, that simultaneously need to remain consistent and interconnected. What could this look like?

For its recent activation in Fortnite, Ralph Lauren reimagined its iconic brand elements as virtual goods for the Fortnite universe. The polo mallet became a melee weapon, and the polo pony from Ralph Lauren’s logo got replaced with the Llama Pinata. The activation was completed with an IRL capsule collection featuring the reworked branding.

People are now looking to digital spaces to continuously reinvent themselves and express themselves freely. They want brands to not only fuel their creative self-experimentation with new digital offerings, but they also expect brands to show up in similar ways, breaking free from the strictness of their IRL brand guidelines, and bringing offerings that couldn’t possibly exist in the physical world.

It’s time that brands recognise their responsibility to not just copy-paste their IP into the 3D realm, but reimagine their brand artefacts for the embodied web. Now is the time to tap into this unique opportunity for brands to captivate audiences with the most expressive, imaginative vision of the brand, unlike anything that can be done IRL.