The Great Twitter Icon Experiment

So this is it, I’m having a ‘blog-off’ with @clintlalonde! Not as strange as it may sound – we basically started tweeting the other night about something which we both felt warranted more than 140 character exchanges, so we arranged to post our thoughts at the same time (PST/GMT). Here goes…

A few days ago Clint changed his Twitter icon. No big deal – except that it actually was. All of a sudden this guy whose tweets I follow, whose blog I’ve read… he seemed so ‘real’, it was as though this person was jumping out of the screen. So why the impact…?

Well, until last week Clint had always been this cute kid with a pudding bowl haircut and big glasses (obviously not the Clint of now, but it was a consistent representation of Clint). I’d never questioned it – it was @clintlalonde and that was his icon. However, when he changed his icon to something which I’m guessing is more current (i.e. Clint now, as opposed to way back then), it felt more intimate and genuine. I could imagine popping over to borrow a cup of sugar or something similarly neighbourly (yeah I know we have 8 time zones between us but I’m telling a story here). It wasn’t only me that noticed and another one of Twitter friends reacted in the same way – she described Clint’s new icon as ‘trustworthy’.

So what was going on here? We used the words ‘intimate’ and ‘trustworthy’ to describe Clint’s new icon. Does that mean that he wasn’t trustworthy before? No not at all, at least I have no reason not to trust him! In my limited web-based contact with Clint he seems like a thoroughly likeable and knowledgable guy, the kind of person I could imagine getting on really well with f-2-f.

It was the impact that his new icon had on us that was really interesting; both I and our other Twitter friend responded on an emotional level – that’s the power of visual ID.

It’s something I’ve lost touch with – I’ve been so intent on establishing a more consistent digital identity after years of separating facets of my identity on the internet, that I’ve forgotten to experiment and have fun with my icon. Especially in a space like Twitter, where people come and go, follow and unfollow, it seemed important to maintain a consistent visual ID, and so I’ve been using the same icon everywhere (Helen Keegan a.k.a. Heloukee, lecturer/researcher, social and EdTech). I’ve been thinking in terms of consistency, reputation and trust, but in doing so have forgotten to have fun with my visual ID. Yes, this isn’t necessarily the best course of action when we’re trying to maintain a ‘professional’ internet self – but sometimes we feel crappy; sometimes we feel great; ID is fluid, and icons are a great way to express that fluidity, because we can send a message and induce an emotional response in others through a change in icon.

Looking back at other spaces, I’ve tended to experiment so much more. When I spent most of my time hanging out with my (imagined) Flickr community, identity play often formed a large part of the discourse. My friend ‘mr X’ is the master of identity play on Flickr, investing much time into his icon which has been known to change gradually day-to-day (the melting snow-version-of-himself was a classic, but there have been many many more). Our icons formed part of the dialogue, which was played out through notes, tags, titles – these tied in with comments, back-channel chat in groups, and of course the photos themselves. As a community, we’d change our icons at the same time for the same reasons…never planned, but we had developed shared ways of seeing in our ‘affinity space’, and it was brilliant fun! Here’s a selection of some of my icons over the years – they may look like a load of random selfies and oddities, but there has always been a story behind each one, each icon forming part of a running narrative which only made sense to a small number of people, and yet brought us so much joy.

I miss this side of my online life. I’m spending so much time being consistent that I’m forgetting to play, and ‘playing on the internet’ is awesome. I’m going to throw caution to the wind and start expressing myself through my Twitter icon… reputation, professional ID, consistency? Enough’s enough, I’m reclaiming the icon as an object of self-expression, in-group jokes and general tomfoolery. Do I feel comfortable about playing about with my Twitter ID in this way? Not sure – it’ll be interesting to play around this way in a different space…

I’m guessing this post may surprise Clint, as from our brief Twitter exchange I think he may have been expecting me to write a post about representation and reputation and the importance of having a consistent ID – to be honest, that’s what I was expecting me to write… but then this happened.

I must be really missing my Flickr life…

6 thoughts on “The Great Twitter Icon Experiment

  1. Pingback:   On the episode of The Office where Dwight was in Second Life and his avatar looked EXACTLY like him by

  2. Oh, now that is interesting. I wasn’t sure what tact you were going to take with your post, but this is a really nice counterpoint to my rambling worries.

    I can underscore the fun aspect. I changed my icon and spent a half a day making new connections, strengthening old ones, and generally having a good laugh about the whole mustache thing. So, there is certainly the fun side, as your Flickr example points out.

    I am not sure what the ultimate answer is. I think how a change in an avatar will be greeted by someone in my network depends largely on the level of engagement that person has with me. People who I may have a high level of engagement with are probably able to easily follow a change in images, while those who are loosely affiliated or connected may have a more difficult time.

    In the end, however, I think it ultimately has to be about what feels right and authentic and true. In my case, I think a new image may trump consistency, at least until the new one becomes the consistent one.

  3. Good stuff here, Helen – I think you and Clint raise some interesting issues!

    As you know, I’ve got a little (generated) South Park character as my online avatar. Since working for JISC, where I attend a whole lot more conferences, I’ve got an @dajbconf account so that a) I don’t ‘spam’ my main twitter feed, and b) people at the conference can recognise me.

    This led to my putting an actual photo of myself at the top of my blog when I redesigned it last month:

    I’m now kind of wondering why I need the little South Park guy. I wouldn’t miss people assuming I’m “a fat 50-something” (as one person put it when meeting me for the first time) but your avatar becomes distinctive to people in a constantly-updating Twitter feed and… oh, I don’t know. 😉

  4. Hi Clint,
    I’ve got to say I’m really happy with our blog-off! Motivating and as you say, the posts complement one another nicely – so thanks 🙂
    There are a couple of (fairly obvious) things that spring to mind in relation to icon shifts: firstly, the impact on your audience is probably greatest when it’s the first change and the other icon is well-established; secondly, it probably has more impact when going from wacky to serious, or vice versa.
    Re: levels of engagement, we could also relate that to the (complementary) idea of invisible audiences and even imagined communities – very much the idea of the ‘in joke’ or group meme. These signals only function as intended with a specific set of people, even though the audience may be much wider. In a space like Twitter where we often have multiple groups/audiences, we can have an in-joke with somebody who we don’t necessarily have a high level of engagement with otherwise – I think then this kind of thing can serve as a highly effective bonding mechanism.
    I changed my Twitter icon today to a tree, in relation to an exchange (on Twitter). Was offline for 8 hours, came back online and it took me a moment to realise why a couple of people had tweeted tree references. Very busy day and basically, I hadn’t spent enough time ‘being’ my new avatar – just changed it and got stuck into work. So much for having fun on the internet, eh? 😉

  5. Hi Doug, it’s also interesting to hear about your own ID/avatars! Weirdly, in spite of welcoming Clint’s ‘real’ avvy, I feel as though I’d miss your little South Park guy – wonder if it’s because I know what you look like in person so it’s not so important? Mind you, that’s potentially doing a disservice to virtual friendships… I’m guessing my attachment to your South Park icon is because I don’t know what’s going to come next – unable form an attachment to/association with something that doesn’t exist yet…?

  6. As a user of various online forums and bulletin boards, I’ve very often associated people I’ve not met in person with their avatar, even when their avatar clearly isn’t them – like, say, when it’s of a celebrity or some such person. There have been times when I’ve met a person face to face after knowing them for a long time over a forum, and being genuinely surprised when they don’t resemble their avatar of a famous actor whatsoever.

    On one forum I’m currently reading, I don’t even know anyone’s user name by heart, I identify everyone entirely from their avatar and signature combination… if they were all to suddenly swap, I’d lose track of everything.

    I remember being a moderator on a forum for a small community once, and we decided that all the admins and mods would swap user names, avatars and sigs one day, to see how long it took the others to notice. This practice of changing user names to confuse people rapidly spiralled out of control to the point where nobody knew who anyone was and we had to pull it back into touch, so to speak, just to get our basic communication back. It was fun for a whole though. My favourite was when we all changed our user names to puns based on mixing our real names with band names (Dan Halen, Jeff Leppard, Al-Styx etc.) Simple things!

    But yes, very important to maintain one’s online identity, or at least be consistent!

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