The avatar is the calling card of the 21st century. From their roots in gaming and online forums to more current forms like Twitter profile pictures and Facebook profile pictures, tiny images are used to identify ourselves to the world at large. There’s plenty of advice out there on what to use as your avatar image. I thought I’d use my own experience with avatars as a kind of living case study.

Grabbing attention vs. being authentic in social media

broadcasting brainMy old avatar looked like a cross between Watchmen’s Dr. Manhattan and my own photo, which is exactly what it was. It was a fun little photo editing experiment that an old friend helped me create. Aside from thinking that Dr. Manhattan had a cool look, I used the old blue-green avatar for another purpose: it was distinctive. It stood out from other avatars back in the days when I was a regular user of services like Digg and StumbleUpon.

As I branched out into other services like Twitter, it just seemed natural to continue to use the avatar across all of the websites and services that I used. You know, consistent identity and consistent branding, right?

In fact, that avatar helped me connect with Jason Falls in the first place. When I met Jason a couple of years ago, I showed him my avatar. We had met at a Canadian networking event. After hearing him speak, I showed him my avatar and he said “Yeah, I recognize that. You’re that guy!” This was a pretty cool thing to hear from someone you’ve never met before.

That meeting justified the idea of using my colorful alter ego. It was distinctive, it was omnipresent and it just worked. And so I kept using the avatar for the next couple of years. Why mess with a good thing?

You are your own best social media avatar

Now there’s a completely different school of thought when it comes to avatars and profile pictures. There a lot of folks who say that your avatar/picture should be a real picture of you that shows you enjoying yourself (I want to attribute this thought to Seth Godin but I could be mistaken). Pretty much everyone in this camp says that your own photo is the most genuine and likeable thing you can do (though it probably won’t do much for you if you’re a dictator or a serial killer). That’s probably what they write in every possible permutation of Introduction to Social Media.

Now, for me, changing my avatar would potentially cause a problem. Just like when a brand changes their logo, people become associated with their avatar images. So there can be a switching cost when you make a significant change. Unless you’re, say, Chris Brogan and keeping the same avatar all of the time would make people think that you’ve taken a breather from the whole social media thing.

So why did I change from old to new?

In the end I just wanted to be a little more… human.

I came to feel that I was hiding behind a freakish avatar. I’ve never used the old avatar on Facebook, where it’s even more important to have a picture of yourself and not something else. Over time it felt like I should just show the world my real face. There’s certainly nothing wrong with it (my face or the world).

And, to be honest, in a virtual world, your name is more important than your face, isn’t it? After all, which one are you going to Google? A face or a name?

twitter avatarSo I switched a few weeks ago and it’s worked out well.  No one has said “Who are you?”

A few people have told me that they found the old avatar unsettling, so I’m OK with this change.

Even if a few people tell me they miss the old one.  But change is often a good thing.

Over to you: What’s your take on avatars? Should it always be a photo of yourself? When is it OK to use something else? The comments section is yours!

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About Mark Dykeman

Mark Dykeman

Mark Dykeman is the founder and main brain of Thoughtwrestling, a blog devoted to helping you with creativity, creative thinking, idea generation techniques, problem solving and getting things done. He is also the award-winning blogger behind Broadcasting Brain. For more great ideas, follow Mark on Twitter at @markdykeman.

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Comments on Social Media Explorer are open to anyone. However, I will remove any comment that is disrespectful and not in the spirit of intelligent discourse. You are welcome to leave links to content relevant to the conversation, but I reserve the right to remove it if I don't see the relevancy. Be nice, have fun. Fair?

  • http://www.michaelbertoldi.net Michael Bertoldi

    Hey Mark,

    I agree, your old avatar is a little weird. heh (attribution: Jason Falls).

    But seriously, I think this one of those one size does not fit all things. From a personal brand perspective, I think it's ok for people to change their avatar as long as it's a close up of your face. That's part of the reason people like @ambercadabra and @chrisbrogan can change their avatar frequently – if it's a close-up, you recognize them. For others, I think it doesn't make sense. Take Jason Falls for example – how's he gonna top that sweet black background photo? I dig the black background which is the same reason I don't see me changing mine anytime soon. Plus, I don't take many pictures.

    With that said, I agree that the name counts for much more.

    Not sure if you wanted to bring businesses into this, but just in case… It's also been said that a community manager should use their face when they represent a company. Again, I would agree, but note that it isn't always the case. Say for example, people may not recognize the username, but a logo would help you get it. In that case, maybe a logo is beneficial.

    But, overall, I agree with using your real picture.

    • http://thoughtwrestling.com/blog Mark Dykeman

      The funny thing about the old avatar is that it isn't too bad at smaller sizes, but it becomes more unsettling the larger it gets. Nonetheless, it did serve a purpose.

      One person once told me that their two year old daughter loved the old avatar, though. The little girl would say “Mommy, show me Scary!!”

      • air max shoes

        If I would have read this a few years ago, I'm not sure what I would have air max shoes thought but today I agree with everything in this post.

  • http://KolbeMarket.com BarbaraKB

    About time, Mark. Now I might start following you around these internets again! :)

    • http://thoughtwrestling.com/blog Mark Dykeman

      See?!? Instant results!!! :)

  • elizabethsosnow

    Glad you brought it up, Mark. I'm always looking at my boring photo avatar and thinking I should change it to entertain my peeps. But just yesterday, I met an online business acquaintance for the first time. She said that “you look just like your avatar.” This has happened more than once. So, I guess that's the point?

    • http://thoughtwrestling.com/blog Mark Dykeman

      See, six months ago, I wouldn't have gotten that reaction. People would have been, like, “where's the green and blue?”

  • http://melissadafni.com/ Melissa D

    I think the Avatar debate is going to be a long running one where you won't be able to get everyone to agree one way or the other. As you mentioned, changing your avatar after having it for a long time can actually cause issues.

    Last year, I did a test on my Twitter account to see if changing my avatar which is not a picture of me to one that is would have any impact. Needless to say, it did. I saw a huge decrease in interaction.

    Personally, I think the important thing is you go with something you like and fits you. Whether that's a fun close up picture of your face, or picture that represents something about you.

    • http://thoughtwrestling.com/blog Mark Dykeman

      Great “real life” example, Melissa.

  • http://www.lynetteradio.com/ LynetteRadio

    I have always used headshots for my own avatar, but company logos for, well, companies. With such little real estate for thumbnails in Twitter/FB mixing logos & faces is difficult. In the normal course of reading walls & streams, I don't usually click through to see larger images of avatars, so postage stamp size really needs to convey all you need it to. I always knew Mark's information by his exposed-brain icon, but to be truthful, I think after you have established your presence and notoriety on the interwebs (Mark & Chris Brogan for example) you have more flexibility. (Notice *my* avatar is the same everywhere, I need to get noticed and recognized across all platforms!!)

    • http://thoughtwrestling.com/blog Mark Dykeman

      I have nowhere near the presence or notoriety as Chris B. (but thanks for the thought!)

      And yes, you are pretty darned consistent across the interwebs, Lynette!

  • http://socialbutterflyguy.com/ DJ Waldow

    I think your avatar should (almost) always be a picture of YOU – not a cartoon, not some photoshopped picture, just you. I also believe that it should be consistent across all online platforms (FB, LinkedIn, Twitter, Blog, etc).

    I often skim Twitter and Facebook for avatars. If I don't recognized yours, I'm moving on.

    If you are going to move from beyond the online world and venture into face to face, it's important that you are recognized and can recognize others. If you have some whacky avatar that is not you, how can I expect to identify you?

    DJ Waldow
    Director of Community, Blue Sky Factory
    @djwaldow

    Also, I think your avatar should have a bit of personality – whatever that means for you. I'm jumping off a ledge in my avatar. If you've ever met me in person, that doesn't seem too far fetched.

  • http://twitter.com/KateDavids KatetheRunner

    I'm less concerned with whether the avatar is something you feel shows off who you are and more concerned with if that message is getting through. For instance, your original avatar apparently unsettled people. That would concern me quite a bit. I don't care if the avatar isn't of you exactly, as long as I know a little bit about you from your avatar.

  • http://scotduke.com mrbusinessgolf

    Yes, the real photo works better in every case. Stats are showing people will more likely listen to what someone has to say if they post a photo than a likeness or a Logo..

  • http://www.rkcpromo.com Roberta

    I have several different businesses and topics so I always put my picture in my logo. On Twitter I have combined the logo from 2 businesses with my pic because of the way I brand my tweets. Works so far…..

  • http://www.ricardobueno.com Ricardo Bueno

    I'm all for real photos of a person. If it's funky, like the one at the beginning of this post, it's all good. But when it's a logo for a no-name brand (a company I don't recognize), no offense, but it's a bit unsettling. I want to see and connect with the person *behind* the logo. Know what I mean?

  • http://www.paragraf.su/ Визитки срочно

    Last year, I did a test on my Twitter account to see if changing my avatar which is not a picture of me to one that is would have any impact. Needless to say, it did. I saw a huge decrease in interaction.

  • Lucidprodigies

    It seems that a professional photo shot in most cases sets the pace for followers with experience in a specific niche market. Depending upon the target a unique interchangeable avatar used as a leader may be a consideration no matter how weird it is. Thanks for a very interesting article.

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