Choosing an Online Image

With thanks to @robsarj who inspired this post with a question about selecting a new avatar.

Last week, I saw a question on Twitter regarding a choice of images for an avatar – should it be an action shot, or perhaps stick with a more formal portrait. Several messages later, it became quite clear that not only does the answer depend on the use of the avatar, but also on the audience and impression desired.

What’s it for?

In order to select an image for your avatar, you need to think about the environment in which your avatar is being viewed. Is it personal, or professional? Are customers looking at it? Co-workers? Friends? Public?

The answer to this question can help you determine the type of image that will best convey who you are to the person looking at it. If your answer to this question is personal, then there are few rules – you select an image that either reflects who you are, or who you wish you were.

If, on the other hand, the use is professional, or there’s a reasonable chance that people who know you professionally will come across the image, then you need to proceed more carefully.

What’s the norm?

In any industry, people have a preconceived notion of what a worker in that industry looks like. Bankers are imagined to be wearing 3-piece suits. A programmer is visualized to be dressed casually.

Remember, this isn’t about accuracy, but about impressions. If you told someone what your job is, there would be some level of expectation as to what you would look like, what you would wear.

When you select an image, the question becomes whether you want to reinforce the imagination, or contradict the imagination.

Reinforce the imagination

There are certainly benefits to presenting an image that fits the imagined picture of you – it provides a level of comfort to your viewers, and can establish a solid first impression – you fit the mold that someone else defined.

If you saw a picture of your lawyer in jeans and a t-shirt, it might make him memorable, but it will also impact his credibility up front, because he doesn’t look like a lawyer. That’s not to say that lawyers shouldn’t have pictures of themselves in casual attire, but that perhaps it would not be a good choice of avatar.

Contradict the imagination

On the other hand, presenting yourself in a different manner than the norm does make you memorable. A well-chosen image can portray someone who is not afraid to break down barriers, who can define their own path. If your industry has the reputation of being aloof, then dressing down can make you appear more approachable. If your industry has the reputation of being overly casual, dressing up can make you appear more organized.

Play the expectation

What is important here is not so much the image you select, but that you recognize how it will be viewed by those who do not yet know you. Your picture has the potential to create a first impression, and you need to be aware of what kind of impression that picture will make. What will also affect the impression is the context in which the picture is viewed, which means that you may want several different pictures of yourself for different environments.

My choice

If you are connected to me on several site, and have been for some time, then you may know that I use the same image on all the sites I’m a member of. The reason is simple – I want a completely unified presence. The image itself, though, has been changed a few times.

Original Profile PictureThe original image (shown at the right) shows a silhouette of me, taken while on a four month trip to Israel in the summer of 2005. I used it as my profile picture for many years, since it showed me in a casual environment, but also gave a sense of mystery and anonymity, an appearance I thought I wanted.

This image didn’t pass the test of time, though. While I did receive many comments on the picture (including wondering if I had touched it up, to which the answer is no), it wasn’t at all professional. Once I started moving onto sites other than Facebook, it was important to me that I be recognizable, and that people who viewed my profile be able to identify with me.

Current Profile Picture I switched through several images, eventually settling on the image shown on the left. The picture was taken on the day of my engagement at Casa Loma, in the summer of 2006. While I was still avoiding using a formal portrait, I did find a picture that showed my face (albeit wearing sunglasses, which is potentially taboo).

This image is very different than the previous one, in that it does portray some level of professionalism. Without knowing the history of the image, it shows someone who can dress well (at least I think so), and confident.

Remember, the image is not about accuracy, but about impressions. The second image, in my opinion, tells more about me in a professional setting than the first. I’m not looking for mystery, but for competence, confidence, and generally professional.

Were these two pictures the first you saw of me, what would you think? That’s what the choice of avatar is all about – making the desired impression on the people who will see it who do not yet know you.

How about you – how did you go about selecting your avatar? What kind of impression do you think it makes?