On Twitter Avatars
A recent twitter exchange with James Bennet, combined with a recent change to my twitter avatar causes me to gather up some thoughts about the way we use photographs as a part of our identity and voice in social media. In no particular order:
Avatars photos are very small. Yes, duh. But many many photos that people chose seem to fail to take this into account. Garett Jones, for example, has recently trade his stock standard university professor portrait for a fragment from a video about education reform. I take it that Garett is telling us something, or inviting us to consider something by making this change, but at avatar size, his new stand-in looks like a smudge, or maybe a finger print, especially when using twitter on a phone. I regularly miss Garett’s tweets now because I scan right past them.
Also on small size, I am amazed how easily I mistake fairy disparate images for one another. I regularly confuse Matt Feeney with Andrew Thaler. On second glance the two avatars are nothing alike, but they are graphically similar, and often times that’s enough. The Atlantic’s Bob Cohn recently replaced a somewhat imposing picture of himself with something less intimidating. I now confuse him with Clive Thompson in my time line. I think its the similarity in head placement and color temperature.
Years of thinking about this, going all the way back to the early days of CU-SeeMe have convinced me that the fastest, friendliest read at small size and low resolution is a warm toothy smile. Scanning my timeline I see that Pascal Gobry, Mary Beth Williams, and Garance Franke-Ruta all show how little “acreage” a smile needs to take up to scan easily and make an avatar warm, distinct and easy to remember.
That said, warm toothy smiles are not easy to capture on a lot of people’s faces, and you can count me in that number. I am told my in person smile can light up a room, but unless carefully photographed it usually ends up looking like a twisted, demented grimace. The causal, devil-may-care grin in the photo of me appended below is the result of about an hour with a cellphone, shooting, adjusting and shooting again. That probably sounds vain in the extreme, but it’s really no different than writing a bio, then re-writing it a couple of times to make sure all the words are in the right place.
Eyes are another place where portraits of me need special attention. I have a pretty strong brow ridge, festooned with lavish eyebrows. This makes getting enough light in there to make them twinkle a bit of a challenge. But a little gleam in the eye goes a long way to giving an avatar photo personality. Again, checking my timeline Chris Hayes, Elysia Nazareth, and Tess Danesi are good examples of of nicely “opened up” eyes, without getting into the realm of the over-lit professional portrait.
Probably my number one favorite avatar for sheer distinctiveness and attractiveness is Derek Thompson: boyish cowlick, black twinkly eyes, warm toothy smile, strong masculine jaw; all rendered in a tonally pleasing black and white (a lot of times B&W conversions look muddy.)
But Dereks’s avatar brings up another point I’d like to make. My photographers eye makes me guess that Derek is pretty easy to photograph, like an actor or model. Photographers like people who are easy to photograph because we don’t have to spend a half an hour trying to get one good shot. More than 20 years ago I was out in the woods with some friends shooting guns and taking pictures. One of those friends was Ty Burrell, and when I got the contact sheet I was like “Holy shit. Every single frame I shot of this guy looks like a publicity still from a big budget action movie!”
That’s what photogenic is, and that’s not most of us. For we mere mortals, an even if it feels hopelessly vain, a half an hour or so crafting an avatar is time well spent. Think of it like proof-reading a blog post before hitting publish (which I sometimes do!)
And one more thing.
A few years ago I met Brendan I. Koerner at a coffee shop around the corner from our apartment. I was very surprised to find out he’s not Asian.