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
My 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?
So 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!
- Branding Your Business or Blog with an Avatar (performancing.com)
- Your Avatar on the Web (chrisbrogan.com)
- Rhodri Marsden: Avatars are an intrinsic part of our online life (independent.co.uk)
- 9 things I really don’t like about your avatar (sciencetext.com)