Instagram's 3D avatars mean...well...what?
This is a big deal. A really big deal. And Gen Z may be the dealbreaker.
This is a big deal. A really big deal.
One of the laws of a fully functioning metaverse is avatar interoperability. With this, Meta can onboard all Instagram users into the metaverse.
Stories and DMs 3D avatar -> AR 3D Avatar in live videos -> VR 3D Avatar via Oculus or Quest (soon to be the Meta Quest, quite the rebrand).
But before we get there, let’s talk about what 3D avatars mean to Gen Z, and why this is life or death for Meta’s vision of the future.
What 3D Avatars mean to Gen Z
3D avatars are not new to Gen Z; in fact, they're actually old. As a generation that grew up playing Club Penguin, Webkinz and Wii, avatars have been a critical part of our gaming experience from our earliest memories. And as these games have evolved into the Roblox, Fortnite and Minecraft of today, avatars have continued to serve as ways to construct non-real identities through these games as forms of self-expression and escapism.
Games have always been about escaping; removing ourselves from the overwhelming and anxiety-provoking realities of the world around us, and escaping into a world we can control, with identities we can alter to match fantasies, dreams, or even memes.
As 3D avatars like Bitmoji have risen to prominence in culture, these social-first avatars have become the focus of technology companies intending to build a metaverse mirroring reality as accurately as possible. Bitmojis, as opposed to avatars on Fortnite, are created by Gen Z'ers to mirror their real-life look. Popular challenges like "Bitmoji to IRL" on TikTok show just how similar these avatars can be to our real, physical selves.
In fact, at 5pm PST tonight, February 5th, Snapchat is having a virtual concert with Jennifer Lopez and Maluma where Snapchatters can “reserve a spot for your Bitmoji avatar to participate in the interactive concert and get a chance to visually appear.”
But on Snapchat, which serves as a more casual communication platform for Gen Z'ers, the pressure to represent yourself identically may not be as strong as on Instagram. Instagram has always been a place for Gen Z'ers, for good or for bad, to share curated moments of their life and paint an image of who they are, or perhaps who they want others to think they are. And now, with 3D avatars on Instagram, the casual, escapist nature of 3D avatars of old meets social-first avatars driven by the social pressures inherent on Instagram. And it's very possible resistance and dislike grows alongside the popularity of these virtual identities.
“If we’re talking like the Facebook metaverse avatars, gross. But I like the video games where you can inhabit a dif character like Roblox or Fortnite. it feels like the gaming ones don't have an ulterior motive. and they’ve been around for longer in various forms (i.e. Wii Mii).”
- Joshua, 21
The question with 3D avatars, in general, is not “will you want to look like yourself”.
It is “where will you want to look like yourself?”
And Instagram is that place where it is critical to look like yourself.
A quick poll of 600+ Gen Z’ers
We asked our network of Gen Z’ers how they felt about 3D avatars - (this was supposed to be for a news outlet so we capped it at 12 hours for responses and got a bit less than 1/2 of what we normally get). Here’s what they said:
634 total results for “how do you feel about 3d avatars?”
18% said I like them
28% said I don’t like them
16% said they are pointless
38% said I don’t care about them
There are a few ways to look at this data.
1/5 of Gen Z’ers like 3D avatars, which may provide (a lack of) support to the identity-building angle that many people try to take.
It may tell us that more than a quarter of Gen Z actively dislike avatars, which may show resistance to the advancing futuristic world, an attempt to remove themselves from the immersion or escapism of gaming and virtual reality.
But another, final angle may tell us that over 50% don’t care about them or find them pointless. And this is what is most dangerous for a company like Meta. For the majority of a Generation, these 3D avatars don’t have much meaning. Sometimes they’re fun, sometimes disliked, but for the most part, they’re just a part of life, whether we understand them or not.
So why is this SUCH a big deal?
Gen Z is Instagram-obsessed (or perhaps addicted). 91% of Gen Z have Instagram in their Top 10 most-used apps, and it is the #1 overall most used app among an entire Generation.
But beyond just the numbers, it is a platform that has fundamentally changed who we are. It has made us more connected but also lies at the root of many mental health challenges. We’re constantly comparing, constantly monitoring, and constantly eyeing the activities of others. Instagram is a digital representation of our lives, and because of that, the image we depict must also represent that life.
Sooo what about the 3D avatars then?
And yes - 3D avatars. It is clear, to me at least, that Instagram will push these forward on the platform and put them in more users’ hands. These avatars are a critical part of Zuckerberg’s vision; but not just his vision. They’re critical to the laws of a fully functioning metaverse. The law in question? Interoperability. It is the idea that identities, experiences, and possessions can travel and remain unchanged across platforms and worlds.
And because of the importance of these avatars to the metaverse, I believe Gen Z will be faced with a choice: reflect their identity into their avatar (ie make edits, adjust clothing, etc) or ignore it and move on.
For Meta, this is an absolutely critical point. If Meta can successfully convince a generation to pay a little bit of attention to these avatars, they immediately open a gateway for the 33M+ monthly active US Gen Z’ers to use these avatars in the metaverse, right alongside its 1B MAU.
As soon as we begin to correlate our identities in real life to our identities as displayed through the avatar, the same social pressures that exist on the platform creep into the picture. We’ll buy some clothing (NFTs) to match the image we want to create. We’ll update them just as regularly as we update our Instagram image and our real one; because as more time is spent in virtual worlds, more attention will be given to the way we look to others. At the core of that social-oriented self-awareness is the impact and understanding of what Instagram is to Gen Z.
So where will this go from here?
If executed well, the date for onboarding millions if not billions of users into virtual worlds may move up rapidly. While access to virtual reality technologies is still an important (and currently missing) factor, it does not stop Instagram from building up to that moment through other, more accessible technologies.
Don’t be surprised if the next step Instagram takes is avatar-focused live video. Using AR in their platform on features like Reels, Instagram Live, or IGTV to get users tuning in and engaging with 3D avatars in real-time.
For now, we’ll see how quickly, if at all, these avatars catch on. It may be met with some resistance, or perhaps a lot of resistance. But in most cases, that resistance is nothing that the world’s most powerful company can’t overcome.
But maybe this is not most cases?