In virtual worlds and MMOs where most aspects of avatar appearance can be instantly changed by a few button clicks -- including gender and skin tone -- do we leave our real world attributes and preferences behind? After noting that avatars with lighter skin seem to get more likes than darker ones on Flickr, I enlisted the help of Mandy Smith, a popular SL fashion photographer on Flickr, to take two photos of the same avatar in the same pose in the same location, with the only difference being her skin tone:
She posted these to her Flickr feed without additional commentary, separated by the span of a couple weeks or so, and counted the total views and Likes by her followers.
Were the totals each significantly different? Well, yes, I said they were in title of this post, but here's the actual numbers:
The light-skinned avatar got roughly 2.5 times more views and 2.5 times more Likes. So yes, a strong preference for whiter skin, even when all else is equal. Now in this particular case, Mandy Smith's default avatar is white, so I suppose some could argue her fans were really responding more favorably to the avatar appearance they associate with her more. Even then, it's striking how strong the reaction differs.
If you have an avatar-based Flickr account, I encourage you to try this out for yourself, and report results back here. (Or get in touch with me on Twitter.) People often say "I don't see race", but experiments like this may suggest otherwise.