Should We Retire the Mystery Man?

We all, or all of us worth knowing on a question such as this one, know the Mystery Man, the pseudo-guy who looks like a reverse polarity keyhole, and who/which is the default avatar for wet-behind-the-ears WordPress sites – only rarely seen at this size:

mystery-manProblems with the MM: First, it’s lazy to use it. Second, the figure is traditionally taken to be a “he”: Maybe it’s because he seems to be bald. Whatever the explanation, and despite WP’s decision to rename him the “Mystery Person,” relying on him or zir or it may still qualify as sexist.

Third, he happens to be… white.

default_avatarNow, if you don’t like WordPress’s other built-in alternatives, as shown above, adding the code for your own default avatar is a straightforward operation.1

One possibility, which you may have noticed already, would be “MOG,”” for “Mystery Ordinary Gentleperson”: Shehe’s an avatar of not-exactly-color, but not white – in my opinion also of no pertickler gender – before a drab off-yellow background of the sort you might see in some boring government office…

mog_yellowAt a typical avatar size:

mog_yellowI added herhis hat with OT in mind – based on a design suggestion from Ordinary Gentleperson James K – and I chose the background with the specific intention of keeping it less than very attractive, the theory being that we want users not to like wearing the default avatar too much, and instead want them to go to and get their own avatars – it’s not hard.

Now, I’m not married to Mog. I happen to like himher for now because I have recently been arguing at my own blog with a confessed racist who also happens never to have bothered to get his own avatar. It tickles me a little to see him represented as a netizen of tone.

Eventually, I will cease to find the idea amusing, and may choose some more serious way to represent avatar-slackers – or I might decide to go avatarless. Some sites will assign their own branding to avatar-less users. An alternative for Ordinary Times, for instance, might be based on this:

favicon1A version of the above is currently in use as the site’s “favicon.” Another possibility, in view of the traditional affection at OT for bowler hats, as in or on Mog, might be just the hat:

bowlerThe above is taken from a free graphic from Freepik, used previously. There’s also this hat on file:

gravatarWhere it came from originally, I’m not sure. It happens to have been used already at OT, and still turns up in odd places. The explanation goes back to the original name of the site, “League of Ordinary Gentlemen,” as still evoked in remnant “retro” references and stylings, for instance in the site’s fonts and in the old-fashioned bicycle visible in the OT icon, and for that matter in the site URL at “ordinary-gentlemen.”

I was informed by Ordinarius Burt Likko in that same discussion with James K that “ordinary” was a common name for those bikes. As for the claim (voiced previously by commenter Bert the Turtle) to the effect that a bowler hat says “man,” maybe that’s a problem, too – or maybe not!

  1. Code and instructions are available at my site, where a version of this post has been cross-posted. []
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41 thoughts on “Should We Retire the Mystery Man?

    • I once had a web-technically innocent commenter who had grown, or so she said, quite attached to her particular monster. Before I switched the site to a different system, I copied and preserved hers for her, so she could continue using it under the new regime.

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  1. Well, they are called Ordinaries because they came before Safety bicycles. They are often referred to now as Penny Farthings.

    Please keep the gravitars as I rather like my Tintins and obscure magazine covers. I would say to move to straw boaters for a default avatar for they were worn by both sexes. But the T with the ordinary wheel works well also.

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    • So, either you believe that Liza defeats the hat = male assumption, or perhaps you don’t believe that the male assumption is a significantly problematic assumption?

      I’d advocate doing something unique to the site rather than click a radio button and go with built-in cartoon monsters…

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        • Yeah, a little TTH. After reviewing the discussion so far and seeing no great groundswell for MOG or any other option. I’d lean towards the “branding” option – i.e., some version of OT as in the favicon – since it seems to be a common second-best option. Of course, though I can implement whatever option at any time, it’s still up to the Eds.

          Also haven’t looked at why GoG is showing the Gravatar default rather than the Mystery Person: Something hinky going on in the code, no doubt, may require hacking/fixing once this momentous decision has been finalized.

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  2. I don’t mind him.

    In some ways, he’s sort-of ironic; if there’s a stereotype of the kind of person that makes women go anonymous/genderless on the internet, it’s the sad meme of the basement-dweller in the fedora. Deserved or undeserved, the OT dude far predates that, and I was quite happy to hide behind his masking abilities for a long, long time. You didn’t get my Godzilla ferns (my current gravator,) or any of the other I’ve used until CK asked me how come I was still dressed in a bowler hat.

    What might be nice, though I don’t know if it’s possible, is another, more feminine version, and some random assignment of them.

    Or just use the bike with the red T.

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  3. I’m personally a fan of identicons, swastikas notwithstanding. I’ve never noticed any on sites I’ve seen that use them, anyway. Though it is worth noting that many of the sites I know of that use identicons are rationalist aligned? This may just be a reflection of where I go in the blogosphere more than anything else. I also happen to think MonsterIDs and the Retros look nice. Although…

    “looks like a reverse polarity keyhole”

    Perhaps the MM could be replaced by an abstract keyhole, in reference to this statement? Just a circle and a trapezoid, relatively easy to generate with any graphical editing tool.

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    • Guy: Just a circle and a trapezoid, relatively easy to generate with any graphical editing tool.

      Would point to a more radical re-design approach – something I’ve been refraining from proposing, because it will be a complex undertaking, especially if intended to bring the community along with it.

      Which brings up an interesting problem: The abstract forms would evoke an entirely different aesthetic approach that also will tend to evoke a political concept.

      References to the cultural past tend to re-capitulate the mores of the past. The retro accents – at this point mainly the fonts, the logo, the bowler, and the URL – will tend in one way or another to recapitulate retro assumptions, for instance that the kind of topical conversation encouraged at this site is something conducted by “gentlemen,” whose status or membership in that certain social stratum will be signified by a common mode of dress: including bowler hats during the period, approximately, that people also rode “ordinaries” and that the font the site uses for post titles and within the logo – “Gaudy Bookletter 1911” – might also have appeared in signage, playbills, and illustrated magazines.

      Now, if we were really dedicated to retro, we could go big with it, but we’re not, so we don’t. It’s just a quaint distinctive mark or artifact, but I think, like the remnant reference to “gentlemen” in the URL – it exerts some (gentle) influence on site culture, not a perfect restraint by any means, just a bit of a check on progressivism for better and for worse: a reminder to be “gentlemanly,” but also a set of sexist-classist-racist-imperialist etc. assumptions that also happen, inevitably, to show up in typical objects, especially, fashions: The whole state of the world ca. 1911 can sooner or later be derived from a bowler hat. (Liza as “Sally Bowles,” sexy in a bowler, is not random either… )

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        • Right – people who agree to play along and get avatars should be rewarded. To heighten the rewards, we can make avatars larger, accentuating the blankness of the avatarless name and the expressive potential of the avatar itself. If we really wanted to ensure that everyone got an avatar – as much for the ancillary benefits of enforcing a dress code as for the avatar as end in itself – we could even attach/deny certain privileges accordingly, but that’s probably going too far.

          Current thread-avatar size is 40px. Can easily be expanded to a higher number + maybe get rid of the radius setting that make them all circles – so:



          96px (Gravatar Max):

          Note: We could also install a capacity to allow people to use OT-only avatars – in case they want to “get away from their day-jobs”. Since some potentially very worthy commenters are vastly tech-impaired, we could also nudge and spoon feed anyone who is interested.

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  4. As I’ve suggested behind the scenes, my favored default would be the ordinary bicycle — the whole thing, not just the big front wheel.

    Failing that, a bowler hat motif is a fine tribute to the site’s history. Plenty of women wearing hats choose bowlers, or at least that’s what I see when I go to Hollywood.

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