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The avatars of style

Once limited to smiley faces, Web personas now reflect sophisticated fashion choices

Krista Callahan is decked out in bright green trousers and a black hoodie. All she has to do is strap on her fairy wings and she'll be good to go. "I like wearing funny accessories like pink sunglasses or fairy wings -- just to be random," said Callahan, 31, of Lowell. "If it makes you and your friends laugh, why not."

Callahan is referring to the fashion choices of her online persona -- or avatar -- which tend to be more adventurous than her offline ones. An avatar is a two- or three-dimensional graphical representation of yourself that you can post on Internet forums, blogs, instant messaging, and social networking sites. In essence, it is your screen name brought to life. Callahan created her digital alter-ego -- Kritta21 -- at WeeWorld.com . And where Callahan hangs out with her friends offline, Kritta21 makes the rounds with her virtual buddies on MySpace and Instant Messenger.

Callahan is one of many souls leading a double life these days. With people spending so much time connecting in the virtual world, their online identities are becoming as important as their offline ones.

"As silly as it may sound, your avatar essentially reflects you or who you would like to be," she said.

Once limited to low-tech buddy icons and animated smiley faces, self expression in the digital realm is now a sophisticated exercise in personalization. When creating an avatar, you can customize everything from eye and hair color to skin tone and face shape. On many sites, your avatar can choose from an array of clothing and accessories to reflect personal style, whether you're into oxford cloth shirts or tattoos and piercings. You can also select backgrounds and animations to reflect moods and interests. For instance, at Meez.com your avatar can strike a pose on the Red Carpet, kick around a soccer ball, or bust into Michael Jackson's "Thriller" dance.

"Virtual style and fashion is exploding online right now," said Anastasia Goodstein , the author of a forthcoming book, " Totally Wired: What Teens And Tweens Are Really Doing Online." "The trend has tapped into the normal adolescent desire to experiment with identity and offers a great forum for creative expression."

For some people, their avatars are simply an extension of their offline selves. For others, they are pure fantasy, said Goldstein.

"Girls tend to create avatars that look like enhanced versions of themselves and then look for ways to dress and accessorize whereas boys tend to create avatars that are more fantastical like video - game characters with special powers or abilities," she said.

Xuan Vu , 23, of Cambridge said her avatar is "fairly representative" of who she is. She created her digital self at Meez.com to post on Friendster , MySpace, FaceBook, and Gmail chat. Since Vu is a Zen Buddhist, her avatar -- Xuxu102 -- sports a T-shirt that says "Ohm."

"My avatar is also hanging out in the jungle with a camera because I want to travel the world and make films," said Vu, a filmmaker in the offline world as well.

A huge industry is being built up around the idea of online identity and style, according to Catherine Smith , director of marketing at Linden Lab , the brains behind the 3-D virtual world Second Life .

"Identity has become so important for people's online personas -- the hair, the skin, the make-up, the jewelry," she said. "Because of this, virtual fashion designers and spas and make up artists have been popping up all over Second Life."

The virtual world has even launched its own magazine called "Second Style" so the avatars can keep up with the latest trends in digital fashion.

Michael Lehman , director of marketing for Meez.com, likens the custom avatar craze to that of ringtones.

"There are tons of people out there willing to spend a little money to give themselves more of an identity when someone calls," he said. "Ringtones are the audio version. Avatars are the video version."

Lehman said that since the Internet is becoming a more visual experience, more websites are adding avatar functionality to their forums, profile pages, and message boards. For instance, his company recently partnered with Glam.com so the site's users can customize avatars for their online profiles, blogs, e-mails, instant messaging accounts, and cell phones.

"People are incredibly hard core about their avatars and online style," he said. "Just by looking at an avatar, you can tell if someone watches 'American Idol' or is into punk rock."

Tamira Sanni-Sanoussi's avatar, "Tami ra WeeMe," is a disco- dancing diva on MySpace and Instant Messenger.

"I like to dress her in whatever style of clothing I'm adoring at the moment," said Sanni-Sanoussi, 24, of Boston. "She is probably more adventurous than me in terms of style, though. I once put her in a deep V-neck black halter top and mini skirt. I would never wear that in real life."

Sanni-Sanoussi created her avatar at WeeWorld.com. In addition to fashion, she said she likes to animate Tamira WeeMe with WeeWorld's mischievous winks and smiles. "I like her to be cute," she said. "I need more handbags, though."

At WeeWorld.com, the avatars are called "WeeMees" and resemble the characters on the TV show "South Park." Like Meez.com, the avatars created here are portable and can be used online and on your cellphone. The site is planning to add designer handbags and other high-end choices for its style-conscious avatars, according to Lauren Bigelow , general manager for WeeWorld North America, which is headquartered in Boston .

"Our site is irreverent and cheeky and doesn't take itself too seriously," she said. Here, users can express themselves visually through fashion, through speech balloons with sassy catchphrase s, and through animation. For instance, you can animate your feelings by selecting "emoticons." If you choose "angry," tiny storm clouds and lightning bolts appear around the WeeMee's head. Also, certain text triggers like "LOL" (laugh out loud) make the WeeMee laugh.

Best of all, when you type "TTYL" (talk to you later), a Humvee limo rolls up to give your WeeMee a ride home.

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