Does your avatar matter?

We all have an avatar on our social network accounts. Some of us took a while before changing the default, others selected one and have stuck to it over the years. But what does your avatar say about you?

For many this was what people remember me on Twitter for, despite the fact he wasn’t my first avatar:

David Hopkins

Remember him? I used him for about 3 years, and was happy. Scrolling through the status updates made it easy to see and identify tweets or links or shares coming from myself. At the time he was useful as few people used illustrations, favouring more social and personal photos. He was used everywhere, except LinkedIn. For LinkedIn I used a (slightly) more professional, but stylised, B&W photo.

I fought against changing it for quite a long while, against all the posts and articles suggesting I was unprofessional or lacking in integrity or ability to be trusted for not having a ‘proper’ avatar. He is/was my brand, and it was how people knew me and how I’d grown my PLN. I was all too aware of how it could be viewed, and how it could affect how others viewed me, but I am more interested in people judging me for my actions or ability to do my job than how my avatar looked or what shirt I wear. Judge me by my posts, tweets, and what I share, not my avatar or shirts or car I drive.

When we started the BYOD4L (Bring Your Own Device for Learning, January 2014) course I wanted people to actually see me this time, not an illustration, on the course and in the tweet-chats. So, for the duration of the BYOD4L course I changed my Twitter avatar to the same as my LinkedIn one (for no other reason than I liked it):

David Hopkins

But then I realised that I didn’t need or want to hide behind an illustration any more. I kept this avatar for Twitter, and started to update my other social channels to use this one too (SlideShare, Klout, Academia.edu, Google+, etc. After a few months I wanted something a little less obscure and something a little more professional, so I tweaked it and started using this one:

David Hopkins

Same image, but actually showing me, not half of me!

Then, Christmas 2014 I made one final change. It was originally a selfie I took and messed around with in different Apps for colour, blur, etc., but I ended up liking it … and it’s stuck for the last 6 months:

avatar festive

Note: I’ve not mentioned Facebook or avatars that I’ve used. There’s a good reason, I don’t use Facebook for work or my professional activity. I have used many different avatars that often reflect where I’ve been or people I’ve met, as well as using pics of one or both of my boys. I keep my Facebook account separate to my other online activities, this is part of how I choose to use social networks.

For those of you interested, this was my first ever avatar!Muppet

So … what does your avatar say about you? Or, what makes a good avatar?

  • Real photo vs illustration / cartoon: Obviously I’d ignored this advice for many years, and i don’t think it harmed my online persona, but I have had more positive activity and engagements since showing people who I really am.
  • Show yourself: Again I didn’t do this very well, as one avatar only showed half of me, not my full face. It’s also worth noting to avoid obscure angles or facing away from the camera, or looking too far away.
  • Smile? Do avatars of people smiling make you want to find out more about them, or not? Does it matter? Some reports say a smile is better, but it depends on whether you’re a comfortable smiler (I’m not, too many chins!) or a slight smile (see above) is enough.
  • Colour? Does colour matter, are B&W avatars OK? I like the B&W look, it doesn’t bother me, but for some it’s not ‘right’ or ‘professional’ enough.
  • Staged vs natural: I have never liked staged, stock photos, anywhere. While they may suit the contact details on a website, they look out of place on social networks (note, these are social channels, the staged photos are more corporate, and this is why I tend to ignore shares or tweets from corporate looking accounts.
  • Consistency: If you use different channels then help your followers out by using the same avatar across them all. It’s not always possible to use the same account name or handle, which can make finding people difficult, but if the avatar is the same, it’s so much easier!
  • New avatars: Avoid changing your avatar too often, if at all. You’re in the process of building your brand, your outwardly-facing image of yourself (whether it’s as a teacher, cyclist, author, coffee-drinker, etc.) is what people will start to relate to. Change it too often and your audience, your PLN, have to learn how to see your avatar in a crowded twitter-stream all over again!

Quite frankly, does it actually matter? If you’re happy with yourself and how you ‘appear’ online, then surely you choose your avatar to match you.

What about you, what do you look for in people’s avatars?

Image source: Chris Christian (CC BY-SA 2.0)

  • I use a connected set of avatars that are all faces from crowds in black and white photographs of cinema audiences, a history that I’ve studied. As I was writing about these images of crowds I became absorbed in the tiny details of individuals, how they sat, what they were doing, whether or not they seemed aware of being photographed. I have a feeling that in using them I’m keeping them in my own mind, but you’re right, they’ve also stood for me in various channels, and they’re not obviously professional. Your post has got me thinking about the fact that I keep them all with me for some other reason, some kind of quiet homage to their moment in time, in these online spaces where we are all faces in crowds of unimaginable density and range.

    But at the same time it means that I’m masquerading as other real people all over the place. So there’s that.

    What a lovely post, thank you.

    • Thanks Kate. Like James (below) your avatars are as much part of your online persona/brand now that a change could (would?) negatively impact how people see and interact with you?

  • I have used the Meerkat for a while now, see https://flic.kr/p/5s65CR for the original image (taken in 2003). It has got to the point where changing it, would cause more issues than not, as the length of time I have been using it. It is a great talking point as well, breaks the ice, partly as people think it’s a cat or a ferret.

    • Thanks James. I felt that way about my illustration/cartoon avatar, but changed it early enough in my online ‘persona’ I don’t think the change has impacted my ‘brand’. Mind you, only you guys could really tell me about that!

      • I do recall when you changed from the “cartoon” Dave to the “real” Dave feeling slightly confused, as I thought you had left Twitter… I often used avatars when scrolling through the Twitter stream to identify tweets from people. I have found it more annoying then confusing for most people when they change their avatars, the issue is exacerbated as some Twitter clients cache avatars, meaning that on some platforms I see the old one and on others the new one.

        Should also say I was confused when I met you in real life for the first time, as, for some reason, I kind of expected you to be more like your “cartoon” Dave, as in more cartoon like… I think that’s because the “cartoon” Dave doesn’t wear glasses…

        • I know, that’s part of the problem using an avatar that’s not a likeness, and also changing it after its become your calling-card.

          I often skim Twitter looking at avatars rather than content or hashtags, so consistency is good.

  • Alison Christie

    Very timely post David. I’ve always used photos of things that i like as my avatar: thistles (Twitter), Highland cow (Facebook) but in an online learning and professional capacity it’s more important, one could say essential to be visible as yourself, even if you don’t particularly like being photographed. Some people hide behind their avatars, I know I did, as a way of staying anonymous online but being visible definitely helps that sense of community. So, I’ve bitten the bullet and changed my Twitter and Linkedin profile photos.

    • Thanks Alison. For something like LinkedIn I’d say it’s more important to have a (professional) photo, as this is far more serious and official than the other channels we use. Personally I don’t think there is anything wrong with the other sorts of images we use for avatars, but I do accept that other people don’t necessarliy think the same as me. For instance, when I was applying for a job last year (which I got, by the way, at WBS) I was very away that my online channels were being scrutinised, from all angles – avatar, content, language, attitude, manners, etc. as well as my history.

      I never Thought I was hiding behind my original avatars, but I suppose i was, but that was never the intention. I guess it just evolved that way from images I liked. :-)

  • Sharon Flynn

    Hi David. Thanks for this post. As you know, it’s something that I consider with my own avatar.

    I’ve reverted my twitter avatar back to the one I used for many years – a cartoon version of me. I know that I’m still hiding behind it, but I’m more comfortable that way. Using the purple avatar (as appears here, strangely), although not my full face, left me feeling too exposed.
    People do recognise me from my cartoon avatar though, which is quite amusing.

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