Having recently succumbed to the debatable allure of MySpace, I've taken an interest in how people represent themselves online.
Specifically, I've become preoccupied by avatars, and the fact that this small image beside a username is supposed to embody the personality of the individual who uploaded it.
In pondering all this -- and by pondering, I mean Googling -- I stumbled across a fascinating scholarly article entitled The Psychology of Avatars and Graphical Space in Multimedia Chat Communities. Though 10 years old and written specifically about a multi-user domain called "The Palace", it offers surprisingly relevant insights into why people choose certain images to represent themselves on the Web.
Inspired by this, I began to look for common avatar types among popular social networking sites. This is what I have logged so far.
A Taxonomy of Avatar Types (draft edition)
The Faux-Nonchalant Self-Portrait
Frequently sighted on MySpace, these profile pics feature the user in a pose of pouty-lipped casual indifference. "Take my photo or don't, I don't really care", seems to be the prevailing psychology written on the subject's face, with the only problem being the telltale blurry arm that proves the person held the camera backwards and took their own photo.
The Pop-Culture-Icon Icon (Type A: Genuine)
An avatar often seen on blog communities like LiveJournal, the PCII promotes a celebrity, television show or film that the user is a fan of. Harry Potter, subversive comedies like Little Britain and Family Guy, and any film adapted from a comic book are popular icon subjects. The ultimate compliment is for a blogger to repond to another's post with the phrase "ICON LOVE!!!", meaning, "I too am an admirer of this person/film/television show; let us revel in our superiority to those who are not fans".
The Pop-Culture-Icon Icon (Type B: Ironic)
The thing about Generation Y is, we're a bunch of sarcastic gits who get a kick out of championing mediocrity and wearing hideously ugly clothing in a way that comments on the very nature of fashion itself. In short, we like to take the mickey. Icons featuring pop culture figures often reflect this desire to ironically worship those who represent failure, dagginess and ineptitude. Following Tom Cruise's embarrassing couch jumping escapades on Oprah, a slew of LiveJournal users got Photoshop-happy with the screengrabs, and made icons of Tom killing Oprah with his laser-beam eyes, or chomping on her head with his detachable mouth, in an animation style owing much to South Park. Similarly, after Britney Spears' haggard and emotional interview about the alleged mistreatment of her infant child, mischievous icon makers created animated gifs of Brit sobbing with a speech bubble that said "I've run out of Cheetos".
The Icon of Shameless Exhibitionism
What is it about MySpace that inspires so many young women to upload photos of themselves in their smalls? Why the large-scale attention-seeking? At least HotOrNot.com was anonymous; many of these brazen bikini babes disclose their full names and other identifying details. It's a bit of a worry.
What would you add to the avatar taxonomy? Contribute your thoughts in Talkback below.