On Avatars

Hey, it's me!I found this interesting post from Hivelogic about avatars in Rich’s shared items this week.

Turns out it’s both timely and exactly in-line with my own experiences and thoughts about avatars. Dan’s post is definitely worth a read, and to encourage a click-through on your part, I’ll only cite him when we happen to agree.

A combination of Clayton’s iPhone app and Rich and Anthony’s redesign have sent Connect traffic through the roof. It feels like we’ve reached a tipping point, which is good but scary as well. With only two guys fixing bugs and creating awesome new features, we’re stretched a little thin.

Incidentally, if you work at Oracle and want to kick in spare cycles to help, hit me up in comments.

Anyway, Paul isn’t in love with the way we show people’s avatars, giving them more prominence than the type of activity. This can be problematic if you happen to walk into an OraTweet exchange between Rich, Matt, Noel and me. It’s pretty common lately for new people to join, upload an avatar, and accept a bunch of friend and group requests.

This is similar to the way FriendFeed models real-time activity.

FriendFeed's real-time interface

Paul prefers the Facebook model, which emphasizes the object, not the person. I like this model too, but it works well for Facebook because they have a wide variety of objects. We don’t have as many in Connect.

Facebook's News Feed

One happy side-effect of the new Connect UI is that more people are using avatars. This is a mighty big deal at work; I’ve worked virtually with people for years and never met them in person. Having a picture to put with a voice and email makes works oddly human. Go figure.

More avatars reminds me more how much I prefer good avatars, i.e. headshots of the person that are big enough to actually show a resemblance. Dan (from the Hivelogic post you were supposed to read) shares a lot of the views I have on avatars.

So what makes a good avatar?

  1. I can recognize it at 20 x 20 size, e.g. Matt‘s avatar is very obviously him, even at a tiny size. On Twitter, I often scan the tiny “following” avatars on a profile page to see if I recognize anyone.
  2. It’s ubiquitous. I use the same stupid avatar everywhere. Not because it’s a great picture, but because it’s pretty good, and I crave consistency. Having the same avatar on all your social sites makes it easier for people to identify “you”; it’s a personal branding thing.
  3. A big smiling mug is a good thing. I also like funny shots, e.g. Dan‘s. Smiling avatars attract more “friends”, mirroring smiling IRL. Not a huge surprise, but an interesting study comparing off and online human behavior.

This is what works for me, and I don’t expect everyone to follow suit. One thing I really encourage is changing the default avatar; I long ago stopped following people on Twitter who were using the turd with blue googles avatar.

I totally get why people don’t change it on the ‘tubes, but inside the firewall, I think everyone should have a picture. I’m fine with the sports logos or tiny shots or cartoons because they tell me a little bit about the person. Still, a headshot would be ideal. We originally tried to map Connect to the internal badging system to pull out badge pictures; that was more work than expected. The reasoning is solid though; people want to know who their colleagues are.

Anyway, it does make a difference. I’ve had people approach me frequently IRL to tell me they recognize me from my avatar, and for me, when I recognize someone, I get a rush making that on to offline connection.

So, what are your thoughts on avatars? Hit up the comments.




  1. This is in fact exactly why the activities feed in the iPhone app doesn't use people's images. I started that way, but found that the pictures seemed to overshadow the content. Unlike IM or even Twitter, which seems to be about the person, I really think the activity feed is about seeing the kinds of things you're interested in.

    Stats seem to confirm that people also aren't clicking through to the full-size pictures, either.

  2. For the iPhone app, I agree, since the real estate is limited. But for the web version of Connect, I do prefer the avatar view. My only tweak would be to batch updates for a given person if they occur within x (say 10) minutes of each other under a single entry. This prevents the “10 Toppers” view that Paul uses as his funny example.

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