February 23, 2009

Fugly default avatars: a force for good?

One of the first things I observed in picking up a Twitter account (read: crack pipe of the Internet) was how fugly the default avatars are.

Twitter's default avatar
Daunting in its ugliness!

Needless to say, I was immediately repulsed by such an inaccurate representation of my facial features. Although my eyes do often reside in those exact proportions, I have a) more than one lip, b) pupils, and c) I tend to wear a hat. Following this line of reasoning, I had two choices:

Sexier avatar
Desire of all the avatar ladies.
cdleary's avatar
He tries...

After the makeover, it was a tough call. A toss up, really, but I decided to go with the slightly more handsome fellow on the right.

After I replaced the default avatar, I stopped for a moment to reflect on the experience. As I stared into the light blue ASCII characters that pass for a face these days, I realized that I had been tricked in a fairly brilliant way...

Fugly default avatars give users initial encouragement to get involved. I didn't want to be represented by an entity with only one lip that clashed with the color scheme of the site, so I was tricked into putting some work into it. In contrast, the Gravatar default avatar is far too pretty — I could definitely live with an avatar that looks like this without feeling inclined to change it:

Gravatar's default avatar
Belle of the ball

After I spent time working on my "Twitter identity", I felt more invested in the account. Paying out some "sweat equity" tends to create a psychological attachment. You don't want your work to be for naught; hence, the time and effort spent personalizing an account makes it more meaningful to you.

Additionally, with your (real) face plastered on every update, you can't help but feel a sense of responsibility in what you create. All of a sudden, I had a reason to care about the quality of my user-generated content on the site! (People who use less personal avatars will obviously be less affected by this phenomenon.) Of course, there may exist people who like having other users read their content, look at their avatar, and intrinsically register, "Ah, so that's what a douchebag looks like!" but I am not one of them.

At this point you might be saying, "You're running out of ideas, man! That point you just made is a specific instance of the more general idea that an increased sense of identity on the web breeds an increased sense of responsibility." I agree — that may be the case; however, it may also be a totally independent function of image. Case in point: I don't want people to associate my personal image with douchebaggery, regardless of whether or not they know exactly who I am.