Picture Perfect (Or The Power Of The Avatar)

I CAN HAS SPACENAVIGATOR?There’s a saying that a picture paints a thousand words – but can it also create a thousand questions?

For anyone that’s connected to me on Twitter or Facebook, you’ll have probably noticed that my profile avatar for both sites is blacked out.

Far from being the results of a broken browser, it’s blacked out for a reason (the basic gist is a week-long protest at planned Internet laws in New Zealand). It’s led to questions why it’s blacked out, which has led to more knowledge about the cause it’s in support of – so, that’s good, right?

Not necessarily, it would seem.

One of the reactions my avatar received today was the suggestion of a principle-based unfollow on Twitter because my face wasn’t on show. Ari Herzog, someone I have shared numerous great conversations with, mentioned that I wasn’t being transparent or authentic. My avatar being black meant I was hiding. Does an avatar say all that?

One look at my Twitter profile shows you all the main information you need to know. Name, company, what I do, contact details, blog, website – basically the works. So that should cover the transparency angle. As far as authenticity goes, I’d hope that this would be down to people’s opinions through their interactions with me, rather than an avatar.

But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the real power is in the avatar? Certainly, my blacked out one has raised many questions so people obviously notice any changes. So what’s your take?

Is the power in the picture, or the words behind the picture?

Creative Commons License photo credit: Torley

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  1. Kelly says

    If the viewer knew why you had blacked out your photo, they would agree. But since the new tweeter may not know the reason, the blacked out avatar might be off-putting enough for them to keeping searching. Twitter can be difficult to figure out for the novice if they don’t have someone steering them to success.

  2. says

    Well, for me faces tell a million words. I believe that our soul is on our front page. True enough I have known people, who put up a fake photo. It sometimes make me uncomfortable, because I feel a gap between the photo and the talk. So I guess a real photo raises your credibility.

  3. says

    While I wouldn’t unfollow you for not having a picture of yourself as your avatar (as I have built a relationship with you), I must admit I’m guilty of doing it to others.

    When a new follower appears on my list without an avatar, I am definitely biased immediately towards not following them. There’s something about seeing a person’s face that adds personality. I think you feel more of a connection.

  4. Lindsay McLeod says

    I’m surprised he unfollowed you when you’ve already had numerous positive interactions with him.
    I definitely prefer seeing a persons face. In fact I was musing about avatars where the person is looking away from you today. It’s a bit like talking to the back of someone’s head, which has never been a preferred scenario for me!
    So far it’s only you and S.Fry who’ve gone black amongst my follows, and while I support the cause if it were many more it would become irritating. When I’m catching up on tweets it’s faces, or avatars at least, which draw me first. Too many blanks slows that down.

  5. says

    @Lindsay. Sorry, Ari hasn’t unfollowed me – yet, anyhoo :)

    It was more a comment that he might unfollow on principle because I was “hiding behind a mask”. Which is obviously Ari’s choice, and respect to him on whatever he decides.

  6. says

    Hi Danny and everyone else, I have two comments:

    First, I’m coming at you from the perspective I don’t know you and we haven’t had great conversations. Suppose you’re someone that people suggest I should follow on Twitter, but I look at your picture (which we agree speaks 1000 or 1 million words) and see blackness. How should I respond? First reaction is anti-transparency, because literally, black is not transparent.

    Second, suppose everyone joined this New Zealand cause and went black. I’m a visual person, and use TweetDeck to categorize people in different columns. If everyone’s avatar was black, it would take me twice as long to figure out who said what as I’d have to look at names.

    At least the Australian’s have it right, with their fight for free speech, by inserting little X’s across their lips. By blackening your avatars, you’re not helping. You’re making it worse.

  7. says

    @ Ari. I can see what you’re saying about new people, but I’d also suggest that (from my point of view), if someone has been recommended to me, I always look beyond the image. I look at the profile bio, the URL, the tweets, etc. That helps me build an overall picture, as opposed to a simple avatar. “Beauty” is only skin-deep, after all.

    You use Tweetdeck – I use it occasionally, though I mainly use Tweetgrid. Any time a reply comes through to me, I look at the name as well as the avatar – I’m not familiar with everyone I’m connected with. So names are as important as images (if not more so, for unfamiliar names in conversations). Tweetdeck doesn’t help because of its dark interface, I’ll agree – Tweetgrid (and Twhirl) dont suffer with this, enjoying a much brighter interface. Yet you can’t really blame an avatar not standing out because of an application’s design (and vice versa).

    You’ll have to speak to the organizers of the protest to get the background on the choice of solid black. I will say that it’s bleakness has resulted in a lot of people asking about it, which can only be good for the cause behind it.

    You obviously don’t like the jet black avatar and that’s your preference, fair enough. But given the choice between a lighter option or making it more noticeable to protest against Internet censorship, I know where my choice of support would go.

  8. says

    I agree with Kelly, knowing your reason helps people to understand why it is blacked out.

    But, here is my thought: Can the real picture hurt you? No.
    But can the blacked out box cause problems? You may not think it should, but in this situation, it is what others think that matters, as without connections, twitter is useless.

  9. says

    It’s both the power of the picture and the words, Danny.

    I think we all can agree that we’ve become accustomed to seeing certain faces and immediately knowing their name, even though we haven’t met most of these people in person. On the flip, if there has been a relationship built with a person who may have blacked out their avatar, then it obviously has little to do with transparency and should rather try to understand what it’s about.

    Ari, that’s a perspective that isn’t true because it is someone you know and have had convos with. Shouldn’t that trump the fact that his avatar might not be transparent? Sure, it may make you read who you’re replying to since the avatar isn’t the same, but wanting to unfollow Danny because of that is extreme since you do actually know him. Shouldn’t the value of what he brings to the table, knowing it’s Danny, supersede your reaction to his nontransparent avatar?

    Not to get it twisted – I would think twice to follow someone initially if their avatar was such, because I don’t know them or what they bring to the table. I know Danny and what he looks like – so I’m comfortable with him fighting for a cause, even if it means he has to black out his avatar.

    Besides, asking what the blackout means is creating a buzz and understanding for what the cause is about. It’s seemingly doing the opposite of making things worse for free speech – it’s increasing awareness.

  10. says

    Which creates the greater buzz, Sonny:

    Receiving questions about a changed avatar, clicking to a link about the reasoning for the changed avatar, or echoing the original changed avatar yourself?

    Moreover, considering about 5 million people in the world use Twitter, and even 175 million use Facebook, wouldn’t more action occur with paper and pen writing or email campaigns? I fail to see the value of how a couple of changed avatars on a social networking site can affect law.

    I’m all for freedom of expression and activism, but how will Twitter help? It’s not like Twitter is heavily used in New Zealand as it’s used in western nations.

  11. says

    While I’m not religious about this, I do think that having a visual helps people who are following you — and that should be a primary motivator. I probably would think twice about following someone new who’s “blacked out” – but once I get to know people, it doesn’t matter to me too much if they black out their avatars. (So, no, I’m not unfollowing you. Better luck next time!)

    Another plus of seeing a person’s face on Twitter is that if you’re ever at an industry event together (or at O’Hare airport, for that matter), you just might recognize each other in a crowd without having to tweet your exact coordinates! 😉

  12. says

    Ari – it seems like you’re questioning the benefit of Twitter or digital media all together now?

    The avatar change isn’t the end all for the cause but we’re in the digital age where an email campaign isn’t something that will be as effective than would an online campaign that has a greater ability (and a faster communication channel) to catch wind. Besides, Danny’s reach and the value he brings his community is something that is respected, thus building a pretty good buzz around his participation in this cause. That said, I don’t know what other actions they’re taking for this cause but wouldn’t be surprised if there are other avenues.

    “How will Twitter help?” – is that what many of us in the industry will say when asked by our company, clients, businesses, etc. to build a campaign to reach out to their fan base, customers, etc?

    I’m all for discussion but you’re kind of stretching a bit with your rationale now.

  13. says

    I’m with Ari on this one.
    I have a few Twitter friends that are displaying the black avatar and I find it disconcerting. Even though I know the message and why people are doing it, when I see them show up in Tweetdeck it’s very stark and non transparent as Twitter should be. That being said…I guess that’s the intent of movement right?

  14. says

    Danny, I never choose folks I follow on Twitter because of their avatar, in fact looking through some of the folks I do follow I see pictures of foxes, office buildings, babies (assuming they aren’t Twittering) and more. A face is not critical to good conversation, a mouth (or in this case something to type with) truly is the key. When I decide to follow someone it is done by looking at what they say in their profile, following through to their blog and reading their last few pages of tweets. It is a long process, but I think it has been worth the effort over the past few years.

    As for this particular case; I actually saw your avatar today because I already follow you by going through the above process. But today was different and your avatar grabbed my attention and I grabbed my mouse; I clicked on your profile, went to your blog and got more info on what you were talking about…seems to have educated me through many paths of connected networks and links. Bravo.

    Plus we get the side benefit of this interesting conversation, not too shabby.


  15. says

    Ari – I have to go a bit with Sonny’s rationale when asking about whether you believe Twitter offers any value in this case. As one of the most useful tools for any message to be spread throughout social media, Twitter has proven its worth countless times.

    While I may have some influence, the big hitters like @StephenFry are supporting it as well, and they have massive outreach (almost 200,000 followers in Stephen Fry’s case). The story has already reached the Guardian newspaper in the UK:


    Additional stories can be found in the influential NME magazine, home to the type of musicians that are affected by the events taking place in New Zealand:


    ReadWriteWeb also covers it:


    As far as other means of protesting, there are also email signature petitions, parliamentary protests and government correspondence. So, a mix of traditional and new media.

    And New Zealand Twitter users aren’t just confined to New Zealand – there are plenty of ex-pats living worldwide taking up the cause.

    If it’s not for you – or the methodology to bring to people’s attentions – that’s fine, everyone has their opinion and it should be respected. Yet it’s also that opinion that could be at risk the most as a knock-on effect of any “guilty until proven otherwise” Internet laws come into effect.

  16. says

    – Kyle. Thanks Kyle, this was the point that I was trying to make. Yes, it’s a black image, but if it gets people talking and asking what it’s all about (which it has done) then that’s half the battle already won.

  17. says

    Wow, you caught me with my proverbial pants down. I have to admit, being a visual person, the visual statement or comfort of putting a face to twitter conversations make me more comfortable. As soon as I saw the blacked out avatars – with no understanding of why, I skipped over the messages as there was not a visual “cue” who the messages were from. I do follow you on twitter and have enjoyed your tweets and the posts on your blogs — but I was caught by this one. I think that there is power in the avatar for sure, at least for me. How can we make the connection to the message and the action clearer? The reasoning is great and I applaud you for supporting, but it is not obvious by the avatar itself. Unfortunately, today was a busy day and I did not take the effort to ask you why your avatar was blacked out. Caught me.

  18. says

    – Kimberly. It’s a valid question, Kimberly. The protest organizers do suggest that you use certain text on your social media profiles (which I have now updated on my Twitter page) to explain the blackout and where you can find more information.

    Hope that helps and thanks for taking the time to connect with me and find out more, appreciate it. :)

  19. says

    I can’t say that an avatar says everything about transparency but first impression counts.

    Malcolm Gladwell says it very well with Blink.

    It may take a fraction of a second to decide if I want to read a tweet or not. And if a follower doesn’t know the reason why your avatar is blacked out, she may just pass it.

    For me, it becomes a no-miss tweet, because it stands out from the rest.

  20. says

    For newer folks to Twitter, having a blacked-out avatar may not be a productive method to build a presence on Twitter and it may even be a turn-off to some of those folks that have been here a while…

    But, for an individual, such as yourself, that has successfully established a creditable presence on Twitter by contributing value and insight to the community, I believe it is only responsible to leverage that influence to support worthy causes. Gaining influence and trust in the Twitter community is earned by transparent individuals whose motives and MO have been clearly established over time and you have definitely earned your influence.

    Not all may agree what is worthy or not worthy, but that’s really not the point. The point is, if you have found a voice and people listen, then get busy and make a difference (Only a small number doing that on Twitter) – and that’s exactly what you are accomplishing – getting people engaged in thinking, participating, sharing and making a difference – GOOD!

    The real value of Twitter is developing new relationships. Real relationships go far beyond Twitter and that is where the value is in participating in the community anyway (just my opinion). I would rather have a handful of meaningful relationships that are a result of participating on Twitter than thousands of people following me because I have an avatar.

    There are a small number of individuals on Twitter that consistently serve up value and enhance the community and you certainly fit in this category – if people don’t follow you, oh well, it’s absolutely their loss – and that certainly won’t stop you from making the world a better place.

    Kudos Danny – I am a fan and supporter, and plan to continue following your ugly black avatar!

  21. says

    It seems to me that a lot of international folks don’t really understand Kiwi culture. That’s ok.

    To get a gauge on where the #blackout came from, the protest was conceived in a small town school classroom in Warkworth (Pop. 3270) on the Saturday and enacted on the Monday. There was no movement as far as I was aware of when I woke up on that Monday morning, yet by Monday lunchtime it was buzzing around the net.

    As far as I can see from the media coverage within New Zealand, the new government is having to answer questions as to the implementation of this new law and perhaps there has been enough coverage of the protest for CHANGE to happen.

    Thank you to all of our international friends like @dannybrown and @stephenfry for bringing this protest into the consciousness of so many, your efforts are truly appreciated.

    I have also already thanked all of my new Twitter followers from the past week who have chosen to see past the “lack of transparency” and had faith in me even though I had blacked out my profile.

    Arohanui (big love)

  22. says

    Danny, following up your response to Jason, I too wonder about the perceived transparency (or lack of) with Twitterers who chose a popular image, whether it be photographic or artistic, to represent their online selves. If one chooses a cartoon or manga-styled avatar or a logo, does that make one less authentic then a Twitterer with a headshot?

    I am using the blacked out avatar in support of the protest and have the information listed in my profile. If anyone should want to ask me or to look at my profile, the reasons for the avatar blackout are there. And I do have to wonder which is more off-putting: sporting the blackout avatar or having the Twitter default O_o in one’s profile.