You are what you wear. Here in the real world, we create versions of our own idealized selves every day through our clothing choices, whether it's just-one-of-the-crowd business casuals or the coded dress of subculture tribes from punk to preppie.
Online virtual worlds work on the same principle, except anything goes when it comes to clothing, which can be any imaginable colour, shape or texture. For that matter, so can your body, which can be transformed as you please.
How the avatar that represents you and interacts with others onscreen looks is all part of the game in Second Life.
Its world, run by San Francisco-based Linden Labs, now boasts over 8 million subscribers (it launched in 2003). It's also big business, as online transactions between users create a real economy, with over $1 million U.S. exchanged every month. As the options for the appearance of your virtual counterpart grow increasingly complex, who you are depends solely only on your programming skills - or your pocketbook.
In the game, Aimee Weber is a gothic pixie with glasses, purple butterfly wings and an entire wardrobe she designs herself. Weber is one of the premier content creators in Second Life, making buildings and exhibits for private companies and U.S. government departments. She's also an SL fashionista with highly successful clothing and accessory lines.
Weber is one of the authors of the soon-to-be-released Creating Your World: The Official Guide To Advanced Content Creation For Second Life (Sybex). All of this is surprising for someone whose entry into the virtual came by accident just three years ago.
"I injured my knee and was cooped up in my New York apartment and couldn't go out and socialize the way I normally would," says Weber with a laugh. "I heard about this thing called Second Life. Originally, I'd heard it was a 3-D chat room, but once I got in there I realized it was much more than that.
"When I first stepped in, the clothes I like to wear - club kid punk ballerina clothes - weren't really available. So I used my computer science and Photoshop background to make clothes I wanted."
It wasn't long before Weber's unique look began getting attention. She was stopped, just like you would be on the street, by other avatars saying, "You look amazing. Where'd you get that?"
Soon Weber was designing pieces under her own virtual clothing label. When a friend donated an in-game island to her, she designed a shop to hold the goods and discovered a talent for creating buildings as well. Things snowballed, and in the spring of 2006 Weber went full-time.
"That was when I did the American Apparel build. I think it's the first commercial build in SL."
An avatar's virtual life is more than its appearance, however. Think about how much personality comes across in the way people hold themselves - their manner, their posture and their pose. Same goes online; it just takes more programming.
"The way something moves is definitely part of its character. Let's start with an avatar. It has a default set of movements that come from Linden Labs," Weber explains, "so everything from the way a person moves or the way an orca whale swims, that's something you have to add. Now you don't have to do it all yourself. You can go out and buy the script for it from someone."
All of this has a purpose, however; it's more than just fashion. The relatively cartoony 3-D world of Second Life is a place to play with your shape, looks, gender, age or any other aspect of yourself you want, and this sense of play can be liberating.
"Sometimes in the real world, the way you look can overshadow your character," says Weber. "But in the virtual world all of that can be constructed - and it speaks volumes about who you are inside.
"If you look at the history of the word 'avatar' - I think it's Sanskrit - it means the projection of the gods into the real world. As a god in the virtual world, you get to determine how you look. You can project whether you're shallow or have a sense of humour. In a way, you can design your own virtual DNA."