My Smiling Avatar

Almost 2 years ago I signed up for Twitter and needed a picture for my avatar. I took the picture on the left, made it black and white, cropped it and went with it. I am not a huge fan of posed pictures, and when people smile in pictures I prefer it to be natural, rather than posed. So I used a picture where I was not smiling. It was fine at the time. I did not want to be smiling.

As I joined other social networks, I used the same picture. I understand branding and this picture was part of my personal brand I was building. My twitter name and many other profiles referred back to the name of this site, Digital Papercuts. Twitter did not let me have enough characters, and I actually delayed joining Twitter for about 3 months until I was happy with my abbreviated username, @dgtlpapercuts. Friends still struggle to spell it after all this time. What letters are left out, they would ask for the umpteenth time.

Time went on and this picture became more and more ingrained as my personal identity. As other people who knew me joined my online communities, they would comment on the picture. You look so serious, they would say. But it was my personal brand and I was unwilling to change it. The best comment I ever received about my avatar was via Twitter. I was speaking at a Triangle Tweetup event and someone tweeted, “@dgtlpapercuts is not as badass in person as his Twitter avatar.”

And not only did I never change pictures, I never decorated my avatar either. I never wore a Santa hat or a red nose, and I never turned it green.

It became such a brand statement that I even put the picture on my business card. There is nothing more cheesy to me than a picture on a business card. But every time I was ready to revise the card and remove the picture, someone would remark upon receiving my business card, Oh I know who you are from Twitter. It meant I had succeeded in creating a personal brand that people recognized.

Well, recently I have heard the rumblings about my avatar. Why aren’t you smiling? It’s not a good picture of you. You should take a new picture. You look so serious. Want me to take a new picture of you?

Last week I did a survey of my followers, asking if they were smiling in their avatars. The response, although small, was convincing. People smile in their avatars because they are happy. People would rather engage with a smiling, happy person, even over the internet. The social aspect of social networking overwhelms everything else and many people eschew the traditional business portrait look in their avatar.

I interviewed my friend and business partner, Wayne Sutton, last week and asked him the smiling avatar question. He is not smiling, but he is trying to create a professional impression after transitioning from a caricature avatar.

I took a new picture where I am smiling. Since I take a picture of myself every day, I take lots of different kinds of pictures. Sometimes I even smile. I made it black and white for consistency, but I did not crop it as tightly as the old picture. For the time being I am only changing my Twitter avatar and background, so I can get used to the new look. If this new photo seems to work, and resonate with my followers, I will begin to change the picture on my other social networks.

And if major brands can change their logo, I can change mine too. Let me know what you think of this change in the comments. And let me know if you change your avatar frequently, occasionally or never.

6 comments

  1. I think that an avatar can say (or assume) a lot about a person. I am in design/marketing and am a huge stickler for branding, branding, branding as well so I definitely understand why you hesitated to change your photo. But because we know business is all about relationships and relationships are all about people, I think a guy with a friendly looking avatar seems more approachable than one that looks like a “bad ass”. I commend you for blogging about it and explaining your reason for changing your identity, er, I mean avatar.

  2. Interesting post Jeff.

    I think people who use the social networking tools will come to recognize a new avatar fairly quickly. If you’re happy with it, then great. Considering the new venture, it’s probably right for your business to have a more friendly looking avatar. Personally I liked the old one better, I like the bad ass quality. You’re a very friendly guy, so it added another dimension. But I also have an aversion to following crowds. The more I see smiling faces on twitter, the less I want one because it gets boring to look at. I like variety. I also like to see people change their avatars, it tells me new things about that person.

    The avatar I’ve been using is a self portrait old painting I did cropped to focus on one eye. I like it pretty well for now. I’ve never asked anybody how it comes across and I don’t remember anybody commenting on it either. I’ll use it until I get bored and decide to come up with something new.

  3. I do think cropping makes a use difference, because our minds tend to fill in what is not included in the photo. Remember what I said when I first met you in person? “Oh, you’re not bald!” Somehow the bad ass look goes with a shaved head in my imagination.

    I actually don’t think either photo is a good representation of what you look like. The new photo looks like it’s a forced smile and you don’t look as if you are smiling with your eyes, but just your mouth. I think this blog post from Cognitive Daily explains what I mean: http://idek.net/JxR On the other hand, maybe the picture is just too small to tell and you don’t have many wrinkles. 😉 Also, with the black and white photo, your beard reminds me more of a clown’s smile makeup. (Sorry if I’m being too honest!)

  4. I’m with you and Wayne in that you want to build a professional brand, serious yet warm and human. Smiling to the person in the photo never looks as good as it does to others, unless you are totally in love with yourself! I recently changed my avatar to some shots I did a few years ago with a professional photographer because other shots I had done were to blah to me.

    I agree that our avatar is our personal brand. I’ve done avatars in the past for IM tools that were altered in a fun way in Photoshop, but I don’t know if I will use them in the broader aspect of social networks.

    Good for you Jeff to be human and honest. I agree that before I met you, I thought you were a bit more “serious” from your headshot!

  5. I agree with Lenore that I still don’t think the photo looks like you do in real life. My two cents: I like the fact that you are smiling in the second one but I think the first avatar is a better photo. You are not going to please everyone with this, so just make yourself happy. But you already knew that.

    As for me, I change mine about every six months but that also is because my hair is growing out and I want people to be able to recognize me from my avatar.

  6. Thanks to everyone for your comments and feedback. This post and avatar change is a great study in the difference in Twitter and blogs, and a shows why blogs are still relevant. All my comments on Twitter were things like “Great new photo” or “Love the new photo,” while here, the comments are less positive, but still constructive and thoughtful. Not everyone likes the photo, but everyone applauds the thought behind it and that I took the time to write a post about it. Keep smiling!

    Note old photo to the right. Ha-Ha.

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