Ananova: Not the spawn of Satan

Avatars evoke ridicule. An avatar is a representation of a person in an online environment. The representation usually takes the form of a human being or an animal (kitties and horsies being common, also centaurs and bipedal lions). The idea is that, in the absence of full-motion video or for reasons of personal concealment, a picture represents you better than mere text will.

Infamous example? Ananova, purchased by British “telecoms” behemoth Orange for an astronomical sum: £95 million. (That buys a heck of a lot of Æron chairs at Internet startups.) Ananova – an odd and multiply-evocative name, jiggering images of Brave New World, They Might Be Giants, and quavering-voiced typewriters – is a “virtual newscaster,” acting like the talking heads on TV news.

Indeed, real-life newsreaders are about as lifeless as a virtual image. The big knock againsts avatars online is that, as moving images, they sock up bandwidth.

But look at it another way. Jakob Nielsen and his ilk constantly complain that Web writing should be short and punchy. (So what’s our excuse?) That only applies to sites with a lot of visual distraction, like a portal, but we’ll leave that for now.

If you want people to read all the way through your news item, even if it’s chunked up into Web-friendly snippets (which traditional print journalism teaches you to do anyway), avatars actually help.

For the first two sentences, Ananova shows you one face. Then she changes expression and shows three more sentences, with the words optionally appearing in a slightly different location. You are forced to re-scan her face and the words, defeating the impulse toward monotony. Ananova keeps on modifying her appearance, in ways that are subtle but only slightly more overt than a stone-faced human newsreader, and before you know it you’ve read through the entire news article.

It took you longer than churning through straight text and it required incremental re-downloads of new facial expressions, but you enjoyed it more.

What’s not to like?

(Admittedly, avatars are a MIT Media Lab–style idea – something the eggheads love that will never put a dent in the real world. Pebbles is one example, a robot that sits in a classroom on behalf of an absent but “telepresent” disabled student. This stuff isn’t gonna fly. Also, we are very tired of the frustrated-virgin-programmer-boy perversion of making every notable avatar female.)

Posted on 2000-11-16