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Only 5% Of Your Followers Don't Care About Your Avatar

Earlier this month I ran a poll on Twittercism that asked my readers, “What Kind Of Twitter Profile Picture Do You Like To See?”

The survey had 130 responses which perhaps isn’t quite suggestive of the entire Twitter populace, and I’ve possibly been a trifle exaggerative with my title, but it’s enough to make the results of some interest.

There were three options available to voters:

  1. I like to see a real photo the person
  2. I don’t mind, as long as it’s not the default avatar
  3. I don’t care about the profile picture at all

You can check the results on the poll page, but the only number that I think really matters – it was, after all, my reason for submitting the question in the first place – was that only 5 per cent of voters stated that they did not care about the profile picture. This means, obviously, that 95 per cent do care, one way or another.

I invited readers to share their comments, both within this blog and on Twitter, and here are some of their thoughts. Note that unless they stated specifically commentators may have actually voted somewhere else, but their text was relevant to the designated area.

I Like To See A Real Photo Of The Person (58%)

“Prefer to see a real photo as I like to have a picture in my mind as to who I am talking to. Makes it more “real”!” (@snowleopardess)

“Re avatar, clear shot of head, but quite a obscure ones like @jackschofield or @jasonbradbury are good.” (@Thedrury)

“An honest looking photo (i.e. not a impossibly attractive portrait as the spammers prefer) as an avatar definitely sways my decision to look further, but ultimately it’s the bio and any recent tweets that determine whether I will follow or not. The use of “marketing”, “free” or “just seeing what all the fuss is about” in the bio results in being looked over though.” (@mattimago)

“‘Real’ photo preferred – at least one that seems to match the bio. I like to believe I’m talking to an actual person.” (@billfromsc)

@The_Style_PA“I like to be able to see a person’s face in their avatar if they are tweeting as an individual. I have recently met people for the first time, who I follow on Twitter, and it makes life so much easier. I also like to see a little bit of personality in the picture. It should represent you and what you are like. First impressions do, and always will, count.” (@The_Style_PA)

“I like to see a real picture of the person, because it’s social networking, I’m trying to get to know someone and I like to have a imagination who this is and what this person is like – even if we know that these imaginations mostly are far away from reality. But its nearer than a dogs picture or an icon or whatever.” (Karinka_W)

“I’ve been considering changing my pic to a portrait of myself now that I’ve found my voice on Twitter and drew a line at what type of ‘personal’ stuff I share. I like knowing who my followers are, and they should know me. Pics really do make a difference – I avoided @Sheamus out of sheer fear when he had his previous pic, and now I’m even bold enough to @reply him and read his tweets more carefully, which has led me to discovering his blog.” (@jovanreid)

I Don’t Mind, As Long As It’s Not The Default Avatar (38%)

“I like to see a picture that defines that person, no matter what that may be.” (@shadowsinstone)

“I (obviously) think any image is better than standard. Sometimes you want to advertise something. I use the sameicon as my podcast.” (@trniii)

“I think the lack of some type of avatar shows that you are either a) lazy, b) aren’t that interested in maintaining your connections via Twitter, or c) have some reason you don’t care to be identified. First impressions and all that.” (imboots)

“I’m quite happy with any avatar, as long as it’s not the default blue/brown nothingness. Having said that, if someone doesn’t have a picture of themselves up there, then it needs to be something eye-catching or at least related to what they’re generally going to be tweeting about.” (@sharlr)

“The brown poo default avatar upsets my ocd need for tidyness! No seriously, it’s annoying being followed by a load of brown squares…” (@widgetty)

@outre“Frankly I don’t care as long as it’s something I can recognize as that person. Personally I never leave a real name or picture at a social site. Learned that sad lesson in the early days of the ‘net and will NEVER make it possible for someone to track me again. I think it’s dangerous and foolhardy to post personal information of ANY TYPE publicly – it’s why I don’t Facebook and never will. Being anon let’s me talk about where I live and things I do freely without ever worrying that I will again have to handle some idiot getting in their head to “Surprise! I found you!” again.” (@Outre)

“I do like to see a real photo of the person as well, however, since I don’t have a real photo up myself (and also I am behind a screen name), I picked this answer. Why don’t I have a real photo of myself as an avatar? I think it has to do with being a newbie in social networking, and still a bit cautious about exposing too much personal data. But I feel, I might change to a real photo of myself in the near future, since I feel increasingly comfortable with the way people interact on Twitter.” (@spoxx)

“I hate the default avatar, and find it’s usually spammers. I do check it out before I dismiss anyone. I don’t use a photo for personal reasons… if it came to actually meeting someone (which is doubtful) I would have chatted to them on a different level, ie; Messenger, MSN or Yahoo or even my blog which has one photo of me anyway, and, if meeting, the phone. Otherwise I read the profile, visit the website etc before making any assumptions as to whether we have any common ground/interests.” (Kirsten)

“For me, the avatar is largely irrelevant. Just as long as it’s something distinctive. When I’m scrolling through groups/columns in TweetDeck, I’ll typically use the avatar as a means of locking on to particular favourites. It doesn’t matter if it’s someone’s face, a logo or an abstract object. Default avatars don’t help in this respect. They just cause the individual to fade into the background. Although I just noticed that not one of the 400 people I follow still uses a default avatar.” (Mark)

“I like to see an avatar of an animate object, it doesn’t have to be a real person, I’m just as happy with an animal/cartoon (except those awful standardised head and shoulders ‘customised’ ones). I’m interested in how people represent themselves – if they’ve put a picture of a bit of machinery or abstract design, I don’t what to relate to, so I don’t really relate to it.” (Caroline Bottomley)

I Don’t Care About The Profile Picture At All (5.0%)

“Hey, have voted. i was o-0, now am orange flowers. someones profile pic never really annoyed/pleased me so i never bothered.” (@jessfaith)

“I honestly don’t care. i suspect that what you expect from an avatar may be related to your reasons for using twitter, if for example you’re headhunting new people, you might expect potential candidates to use a portrait.” (@fudgeit)

“Ask not what the avatar can do for you, it’s what you can do for the avatar. Surely a powerful Tweet stands on it’s own legs?” (@fraserke)

Twitter's Default Avatar“To be honest I barely look at the avatar when deciding who to follow – I search through their tweets ignoring most @replies and if they have a link to a blog/website I will follow that.” (Heléna)

“I don’t particularly like the default avatar but I don’t hate it. I tend to look at what a person is saying when deciding to follow or not rather than the image. There is no way I would use a picture of me for my avatar though. It has nothing to do with not wanting people to know what I look like but rather that I don’t have an image of me that I would be happy to show. As someone else has said, it all depends on your reason for using twitter. I just want to chat to people, I don’t want to promote myself or look for contacts. I have nothing to plug so don’t think my face is important. If people feel differently they needn’t follow!” (@jocassels)

“I don’t care what picture I have on twitter cause I’m not looking for some groupies to hang out with me and I don’t tweet myself. For me twitter is a place to get updates from a site owner that I follow and it’s the only place where he announces updates on the important forum messages.” (Sami)

My Thoughts

Mark makes an excellent point in his comment about how historically in social media, certainly on bulletin boards and message forums, “people have never really used their own photo for an avatar” and “Twitter subverts that expectation, which is encouraging”. I absolutely agree. I think this breakthrough probably started with MySpace and then Facebook, but those platforms, certainly the latter, had an element of privacy and security that is not there on Twitter, but many users seem quite comfortable to use a real photo of themselves on the network. Moreover, if we can apply any weight to the results of my poll, the majority expect and prefer to see this from others, too.

Whether you prefer (or use) a real photo or not, most of us like to see some kind of unique avatar with those we follow because it helps us to identify and, on some level, categorise that individual. While I do my very best to remember the user (and real) names of those in my network, because Twitter updates so quickly it’s much easier for our brains to track individuals via their image. We spot the avatar first, and I think in most cases react to it a lot faster – this is certainly the case if the person is not a celebrity or very well-known to us.

Indeed, I find that when somebody changes their avatar, and certainly if they do it too frequently, they can quickly drop off my radar and can be forgotten about almost entirely unless we’re regularly exchanging tweets.

As said, there weren’t enough votes in this poll to make the results scientific ‘proof’, but if you have a quick look around your network I’m pretty confident you’ll find most, if not quite all of the accounts use their photo (or at least, ‘a’ photo that they’re claiming to be of them ;) ) for their avatar. Some folks, including quite a few A-listers, use an image representing them (or their business), but few serious Twitter users stick with the default avatar. It’s almost 100 per cent absolute newcomers, bots or spammers, or those who’ve had problems uploading their image (which sometimes Twitter can make very difficult to do).

One notable exception is the novelist Clive Barker, but I’m working on that. :D You can help, too – follow Clive, and then send him a polite message suggesting he uploads a photo of himself. :)

Because after all – whether you’re a follower or a fan, almost everybody likes to see something at the beginning of the tweet, just as long as it isn’t Twitter’s butt-ugly default.

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