Did you get a visit from the Google Feature Fairy yesterday? I did, and some lovely new colors appeared in the top navigation bar. I saw some changes on the Grand Ol’ Search Engine page, too. Then, a curious little bubble hovered in the right sidebar of my Gmail inbox, reminding me of the userpic connected to my account. I got the hint: Google is going to use my picture in more ways than it used to.
Hmmmmmmmmm. Forgot about that picture I'd chosen. It’s a photo of me (this picture, actually) with too much flash and some curly, straggly bangs in my old office.
It’s not too bad in the right size, like the medium 200x200 size above, but this is what it looks like when it’s really small.
So, I’m thinking, as I often do, in the middle of my intense internet-checking and app-coding days, do I really want that picture, possibly that small, associated with every single email that I send?
Hmmmmmmmmmmm (with more m’s). No, I don’t think I do.
This got me thinking about all the folks out there who haven't committed to a picture, icon, or doodad to represent them online. Ever sign up for a new site only to find that their default userpics (or avatars or Profile Pictures, what have you!) look a bit...similar?
Yes, these are how community members in the Year 2011 are actually represented until they change their picture to something else. I know what you're thinking: Crikey, the sexism! So much blue and gray and crew-cutting! Reader, I’m with you, and so are others. But, today, I’m going to give these services’ cloudy-weather theme a break. We shall travel deeper.
Even on xojane.com, the comments are provided by a service called Disqus, which powers the discussion for whole lot of great online communities with a light technical footprint. Despite the femme vibes on the site (with frisky colors like #B71B3B Pink and #FFF000 Yellow), all of us commenters have got the same default look.
WHAT A HUNK.
Lots of communities, some built particularly for female audiences and some not, stray away from even the head-and-shoulders look to go for something completely different. I looked around the web and rounded up a few great ones. Let us take a look at them!
Lifetime, Fine Purveyor of tears and childhood guilt, goes with the classic question-mark face and smiley face pairing. That smile....that smiley-face smile. It’s just happy to be off of its yellow t-shirt companion. Otherwise, it creeps me the hell out.
Flickr, an excellently quirky photo-sharing community owned by Yahoo, goes with gray nostalgia from an era of low-fi video games. It’s not friendly, it’s notdirectly grumpy, and it’s completely raceless and genderless. I’m okay with it. Neutral. If it was a food, it would be rice, aka, I Could Get By On It Forever.
TypePad is so fine, it’s so fine it blows my mind! It has a special place in my heart, and I adore its userpics because (a) the colors are in that space between bright-bright and pastel, (b) I can SMELL the math in them, (c) they’re randomized and there isn’t a whiff of pre-determined personality in them, and (d) I knew the folks who designed this, several of whom were women. Holler and meow meow to that!
iVillage! Health! Beauty! Pregnancy! Entertainment! Naps! It’s not the community for me, but lots of women love it, and I’d never hate on that. I like the cursive, and the Game-Of-Life inspired colors, but I think they remind me a little bit too much of a chocolate bar wrapper. (SEXISM JINX! You owe me a Coke. Make that a Coke Zero.)
Twitter’s modus userpicerandi (don’t diss my Latin; I speak binary) these days is their floating ghost-bird against a neutral background. An ANIMAL! I’m into it! And it’s very simple and recognizable and brand-safe. I have a personal preference for the old logo, especially since I use o_O as an adjective in daily online conversation, though I wasn’t wild about the colors.
Tell me how cute the mlkshk default picture is. I already know, but I like to be told again and again. Warm colors, friendly animal, inner “awwww!” abound. And, if you ask me personally, I will tell you how much I love mlkshk as a photo sharing service, partially by its uber-welcoming designs, and partially by its rock-and-roll “We are a Startup and a Family Who Likes to Have Fun” attitude. Fan girl. Right here.
I would not have guessed that my favorite userpics to result in this massive search would have come from Oprah, but they did. They’re circular, simple objects in bright colors. Some reaching non-biopsychologist like myself might say they’re reminiscent of that biological intuition we have to adore things with oversized, youthful eyes. Weirdo I may be, when I registered and was framed with the cluster of balloons as my default pic, I purchased an O subscription immediately. (WHAT? IT’S UPLIFTING. I need that shit in my life, particularly when my face is smudged into a stranger’s armpit on the express train. Or theirs into mine. Et Cetera.)
♫ I'll Be Your Mirror ♫
I literally nabbed all the userpics you see here in the span of 3 hours or so. They’re absolutely real, and the variety out there is absolutely slim-pickins. There are outliers, like Second Life, a space for social gaming, lets you customize an entire being as your avatar, including their body type, what they’re wearing, whether or not they have wings, etc.
But that’s the point of their game to create, be something you may or may not be, interact with others in a way you might not in real life. It’s okay and appropriately gung-ho into false realities because it's a game.
On online communities that we love, when we’re representing some part of our real selves, I don’t feel valued when a web application expects me to be gray and masculine. I don’t think I’d feel that much better if each of those icons above were pink and had cute hair, either.
By the way, the only female-biased userpic I could find (and I tried!) was from Martha Stewart.
Some sites balk at the userpic equation and support only Facebook logins, ganking profile pictures straight from your FB account. A lot of designers have expressed the challenges in coming up with adequate default avatars for new social networks, and I especially like the comic-book character idea. Even in the tools that I (often inadequately) use to make visual diagrams, the bias is built in before code is written. This part of the Konigi wireframes, one of the best sets available, is the suggested bundle for avatars:
I understand that we’ve thought for a long time that silhouetted head-and-shoulders are supposed to represent A Real Person, but I think those times are over. It was a stupid precedent that we all foolishly copied. Identity, along with all of its complexities involving physical appearance, personality traits, race, gender, heritage, the whole works, should not be boiled down. Period.
I’ve been reading Jaron Lanier's You Are Not a Gadget, suggested by reader Sweet_Bird, from my sexual harassment online post on XOJane. Yesterday's Gmail changes reckoned with my right to represent parts of myself online as I want to. I don’t want my face associated with my email account when I’m complaining to a congressman, and I don’t want a neutral-gray userpic representing me when I’m pouring my heart out with a personal story on a site that I love. Truthfully, I'm not even aware of the places where my Google userpic might turn up! Their advertising segment is mind-bogglingly big and has no business correlating my picture with my collected ad data, so That Concerns Me. o_O
You Are Not a Gadget discusses that loss of humanity online when we squish every dimension that makes us interesting, different people into flat profiles built by short forms, comma-separated keywords, and universally-used userpics.
Let’s Make Things Interesting, I Say!
I'd like to call for two changes online: stop assuming people want to use their Facebook picture in a community, and ban the user of head-and-shoulders default userpics.
Just because it's technically possible to recycle your FB profile picture into other communities doesn't mean that we should. Besides, the point of these icons is to encourage people to personalize them to something more expressive of themselves anyway, so why not be more direct? Aggressive, even? Here are some suggestions I’ve made with the goal of encouraging users to choose their own picture within 30 seconds of joining, or to keep it for ironic posterity.
I welcome your suggestions, as well! Let me know what to create and I'll make them.
As for me, I changed my Google userpic to this, and I feel good about it.