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.



I can’t make my mind up whether or not to be irritated by all the ‘Top Ten’ lists I seeing bandied about inside my community of practice, or to just ignore them.

It seems that many of us in Education like to pontificate about what we see as the Top Ten best things since sliced bread, or the definitive list of requirements for one thing or another: but not all of the authors/bloggers take the trouble to add the one necessary justification – ‘in my opinion‘.Having said that, I think my real issue is with the way the lists are passed around Twitter and the like.

I see countless ‘Top Ten’ lists being tweeted and then RT’d (re-Tweetedlook out for that in the next edition of the Oxford English dictionary) but I wonder how many colleagues take the trouble to read the blogged lists before re-tweeting. Because some are absolute drivel.

Some authors follow their own strict advisory guidelines and use the term ‘I think/believe/consider’ – whatever: but others are just too definitive. It would be unfair to list the one that broke my camel’s back of silence today but it concerned ‘tips’ and ‘effective video’. Fair enough – it was a good post and it was re-Tweeted a lot of times, many people re-Tweeting already re-Tweeted posts.

My worry started when I wondered how many re-Tweeters had actually read the article. I did, and I enjoyed reading it but if I’d been the first person to pick it up and re-Tweet the address, I would have wanted to add my comment, which would have been (given the 140 character limitation) “enjoyed this but only concerns ‘push’ teaching“. I might then have posted a comment on the blog (at the time of writing this no one has commented on the post itself – but I have done so now) and hoped that the ‘science’ of effective video could take a step forward.

So – please enough with the lists now AND if you’re going to re-Tweet something like a blog post, please try to expand the discussion by commenting on the RT or on the blog itself. Otherwise we simply end up with a list of lists that mean nothing.

What if …

Picture 3What if (I’m not on a list)?

This week I’ve looked at Twitter’s new (sic) LIST feature. I’ve created lists and I’ve looked for myself on the lists of others. This could eat away at my basic human insecurity. Why?

Well, lists are not new – I’ve had a Jaiku list on Tweetdeck (and Seesmic until I dumped it) for months. The people on that list are all my old chums from the by now terminally dead Jaiku. They are my original CoP. It gave me comfort to have a list with all my regular mates, colleagues and trusted gurus on it. It’s still there – but more and more these days I read my entire Twitter feed. There is such a variety of thoughts, ideas and fun that it has become difficult to choose which list I would read the most.

Picture 2

Now Twitter has given me the opportunity to create more lists.

Straight away I recreated my Jaiku list, then another called ‘ILT-Mates’ and another called ‘Gurus’. This last list was to be populated with people like @hrheingold and the two professors: Cook and Traxler. Then I thought that Steve Wheeler (@timbuckteeth) should be on the list, and James Clay (@jamesclay) – how could I leave out Lilian (@xlearn), Dave (@davefoord) and Ron (@ronm)? And apart from a few names, ‘Gurus’ turned out to be the same list (almost) as ‘ILT-Mates’. Some people were now on all three lists!A selection of people I follow on Twitter

But what if Lisa (@notlob) found herself on ‘Jaiku mates’ and neither of the others? What if other friends didn’t feel comfortable with the ‘Guru’ grouping? Would I lose friends or respect? Luckily, I’ve kept my lists ‘Private’ and will probably never use them but what if they were ‘public’? Would they cause upset or anger? @shrifootring has me on her ‘fun to follow’ list and I am pleased and happy that she has done so – thank you Shri. But Lilian has me on her ‘Public’ mlearn’ list and happy as I am to be there, the little monster inside of me says, “Has she got a ‘private’ friends list?  Am I on it? Am I not good enough to be Lilian’s friend? Has she got a ‘Guru’ list? ???”

Of course I’m not that insecure – but others might be!

Is there a point to ‘lists’? I know there could be – but will there be? Will we be able to eat away from the basic divisiveness of lists?

Is Twitter innovative?

On Sunday last, I was invited to follow #spymaster ( on Twitter. Given that my invite came from a respected friend, and the fact that that friend is one who pushes the boundaries of learning technology (and the further – final fact that it was Sunday and not really a work day – although ….) I succumbed. You never know unless you try!

The game – and this does not really matter for the purposes of my post – puts you in the position of a James Bond, Ilya Kuryakin sort of spy. You have to earn money by doing simple tasks, buy ‘stuff’ to make you more powerful and assassinate people. That’s about it. I saw pretty early on that it was something that, if you became committed to it, would suck the time out of your life. It is/was like everything I hate about Face Book – pointless and silly. However, for the occasional 10 minutes I played with it on the day it was a harmless pastime. The main problem with it, is the viral nature of its invitation policy – unless you’re careful everyone you’ve ever written to or heard from on your email programme will be invited. The designers have clearly set out to rule the world.

Nevertheless, my agreeing to use the game was my choice.

It was a surprise therefore to read several Twitter posts which implied that the game was ‘not an innovative use of Twitter’. Because I thought it was. Had it been the sort of thing I actually liked, or if I could have found an educational use for the game – it might have been an innovative use of Twitter. Because Twitter itself no longer innovates. Twitter for many, is just another bandwagon and it’s shine will fade (see James Clay’s excellent:Ten reasons why Twitter will eventually wither and die… – he cites this game as an example of #9 ). Others have posted that they will un-follow(!!) Twitterers that post to #followfriday. Another form of creeping death.

So what is innovation? Is it anything that doesn’t have a bandwagon following it? Surely innovation is the taking of ‘something’ and putting it to another – useful – use? Perhaps that’s the real question – what do we as individuals deem to be useful?

Needless to say, I’ve now done what I can to disable my #spymaster account. I didn’t like it, I couldn’t see how it could be adapted for educational purposes and I can’t be bothered with it – but as I said before: you never know unless you try!

Also read: Ten things people say about using Twitter, but really they shouldn’t (James Clay).