Are avatars authentic or effective?

I was engaging in some micronarcissism (that means looking at my Twitter page) the other day when I chanced to notice that most of the icons - or avatars if you prefer - were faces, most of those photographic.

The old New Yorker cartoon said, "on the internet, nobody knows you're a dog" (the cartoon showed an actual canine using a computer) yet here are some people using (I assume) their real faces for their online presence.

Before pondering the implications of that, a brief geektour of the numbers:

I classified twitter pictures into four types:

  1. Faces (photographic) - to the best of my ability to tell, photographs of one person's face
  2. Faces (illustration) - faces but not photographic, includes illustration and overtly manipulated photos such as "obamifications" (which should be called "Faireifications" or perhaps "Obamanations")
  3. Corporate or personal logos
  4. Other (body parts other than faces, bucolic scenes, pictures of animals, etc.)

Some Twitter avatarsOf the 36 icons pictured in my little "Following" bloc,

Faces/photo: 28 (78%)
Faces/illustration: 1 (3%)
Logo: 4 (11%)
Other: 3 (8%)

Of the top 50 Twitter Elite in the USA (via Grader)

Faces/photo: 39 (78%)
Faces/illustration: 4 (8%)
Logo: 4 (8%)
Other: 3 (6%)

The results are pretty consistent these samples.  Faces are in. Photorealistic ones, especially. I'm not sure if that has changed over time or if it's always been the case.

Not that there's anything wrong with that, but why?  I'm thinking that there's a general movement in social media for authenticity and transparency, that you should say who you are and be real.  There's a lot of software in our brains devoted to recognizing and understanding faces, and we seem to like to use it.  Faces humanize online experiences.

But let me take the contrary position for a moment.  Shouldn't your online avatar or chat icon stand for you in a communication and marketing sense?  Isn't it a small ad banner that you can use creatively?  And shouldn't you at least attempt to stand out in the crowd or cloud?

On the one hand, if I don't already know who you are, seeing that you're a middle-aged white guy with unfortunate facial hair doesn't add much to my online consumption of your updates.  On the other hand, once I start reading those things, seeing that photo might add depth or credibility to your online presence, and then I even stand a chance of recognizing you in person.

Here's a post (that I found via a tweet from a logo avatar) about adding your photo to LinkedIn, which seems a lot more straightforward.  On LinkedIn, like Facebook, you're definitely supposed to be you.  On Twitter or blogs, you could be a character, a brand, a team, all sorts of things.

What the duck?As a guy who uses a duck (you can sometimes still find my old icon, a rasterbated photo) for online imagery, I guess I could be accused of hiding.  But that icon serves pretty well:  it's easy to recognize,  related to my online brand, consistent across social media sites, seldom changed so consistent across time, and pretty good at standing out in the crowd.

4 Responses

  1. Thanks for referring to our article about adding your photo to Linkedin. I love the duck image; it's cute and I can see its effectiveness in branding you. But I must say that you've compelled me with your good writing and I'm left yearning to see your human face. Perhaps that mystique serves you, too. Anyway, great blog here and thanks again for the acknowledgment.
    • Hi Susan, thanks for noticing. I see your gravatar is blank - it's another personal branding opportunity! As for me, I'm just another white guy with a web 2.0 haircut...
  2. Good points.. I always try to use a picture with my avatar, preferably my own :). Check out http://www.twitter.com/spryka
  3. See also http://www.economist.com/science/displaystory.cfm?story_id=13253590.

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