Social Avatars

This is me before the ghostly washoutI’ve been thinking a lot recently about the way in which people represent themselves online. I’ve been specifically interested in the avatars people use on sites like Twitter.

My first Twitter avatar was a pair of green bowling shoes with red toes. I must have used that one for over a year. Then for no reason whatsoever, I changed it to a ‘crop’ from a photo I had of a robin on a power line. The ‘crop’ showed a magnificent winter-blue sky with the tiny dot of a bird mid-lower-right third of the image. I used this for over a year before changing, this time on purpose, to a disguised ghostly image of me. This change received some negative comment, as did the next slightly disguised picture of me with a halo effect.

So I’m now back with the robin. What have I learned/observed during this experimentation with avatars?

I think we all develop a virtual representation of ourselves that becomes an online reality. By tampering with my visual representation, no matter how tiny it is, I upset the equilibrium with which ‘followers’ and/or ‘friends (used in Twitter/Facebook terms) view me. A friend who has seen me deliver workshops and met me on many occasions socially and professionally had been upset that the ghostly washout did not represent the colourful me. Another friend suggested that the halo image was portrayed to her as an old granny (doing her knitting?). Both examples of comment were true. The ‘washout’ did not work as a representation of my work and/or character and the ‘halo’ did indeed look like a granny doing some crochet work! The impersonal images of bowling shoes and robin elicited no comment whatsoever.

granny effectThis leads me to believe that we look for true representations of someone in a photographic avatar and where the person is known by us socially and/or professionally, we feel personally slighted when that image does not represent the person we know. A non-human representation does not evoke the same response.

I’d also felt a slight discomfort when colleagues and friends changed their avatars too, but I wasn’t sure why. I was not surprised therefore when James Clay said (when we last met) that he was fed up with people changing their avatars.  My ears pricked up and I asked him why. He suggested that it isn’t as easy to identify a ‘tweet’ if you’re scanning through the (whichever) interface to read items of interest. And it suddenly occurred to me that that’s why I had the discomfort.

ghostly washoutWhen we become regular Twitterers (is there such a word?) we have to learn that we cannot read everything – no matter how many people we follow. We have to treat the stream of ‘tweets’ just like we would view a stream. A stream flows, it passes by us: that’s it. Therefore recognising the tweets of our favourite tweeters (I’ll look back on this one day and say “WHAAAT?) is done quickly by eye and we learn to recognise that person’s avatar.

Discomfort is caused when our avatars change, so to anyone thinking they should change their avatar – think twice.

Thank you to everyone who commented on my avatars while I was in the experimentation stage. Please do not be offended that I have changed back or that I have not specifically mentioned you here. And please be assured that I was not offended in any way or at any time. I suspect that I will re-visit this one day as I really do find it an interesting subject closely allied to human computer interaction.

3 Responses to “Social Avatars”

  1. Gail Says:

    Hmmm. I think it opens up a new realm of identity-making and redescription of the self. The avatar is often carefully selected – it’s meaningful in some way and so becomes “us.” In this day and age, you see people FB updates, tweets etc several times a day (sometimes more) and far more often that you might see that person in the same physical space. So as much as a new haircut or weight change etc can throw people off, this has more power to do so because you see it so many times a day. Consider if we were able to change our bodies or faces by stepping into a “bod-change-booth” how disoriented everyone would be . . . same thing here. Identity construction for the 21st century – there’s a sociologist out there writing something about this that I want to read, I’m sure. I think your point about filtering is especially interesting – the visual clues us to who and what we want to pay attention to allows for faster and easier processing. Hmmmm.

  2. Tweets that mention Social Avatars « EduVel -- Says:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by David Sugden, David Sugden. David Sugden said: Are you thinking of changing your Twitter Avatar? I did – several times. Blog post […]

  3. armaitus Says:

    Very thought provoking.

    I used to filter through my twitter feed using pictures but now I use aliases.

    So whilst I used to pick up on the robin now I pick up on dsugden.

    I don’t think I’ve ever changed my Twitter avatar (gravatar? or is that just wordpress?) I’m not even sure what it is off the top of my head; possibly me in a ginger dreadlock wig.

    In fact the only avatar I regularly change is the one on faceache… before the days of social networking I think I would change my MSN profile picture maybe once a year.

    The only rationale for not changing avatars is that I don’t see the need. If I come across a particularly impressive picture of myself then I usually change my faceache picture but don’t bother with everything else.

    There seems to be an upcoming trend in sites using OpenID. This allows you to share your login method across sites using OpenID. So you could choose to drive everything with Twitter or your Google account.

    Maybe they* will eventually change this to allow shared avatars and profile details.

    *they: Who THEY are, I have know idea.

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