Profile Pictures and Online Identity

Twitter follows
I was moving around my twitter account this morning, looking at my timeline, my direct messages, my recent followers, and the people I follow. I started looking carefully at all the avatars and thinking about the people behind them. The image on the right is the profiles of the most recent seven twitter accounts I've chosen to follow.

It's really interesting to see what people choose to use to represent them online. The simplest thing is a headshot and I suspect that's what the majority of people use when they are asked to upload a profile picture. That's what Kara Swisher chose (she's the top profile, my most recent follow).

But even with the headshot, some people go for the funny picture, adding some character to their profile. Mike Doughty (second profile) has his head on the table and some sort of box between him and the camera. Stuart Ellman (fifth profile) is dressed as the court jester (probably a halloween pic). Both of those profiles tell us a bit more about those two.

Some choose to use a photo of something or someone else. Lauren (fourth profile) seems to have chosen a family photo of some kind. Howie (sixth profile) has a photo of his friend and Springsteen's guitarist Nils Lofgren. We don't get to see these people's faces, but they are telling us something about them nonetheless.

I've been online since the early 90s and I've gone back and forth on what kind of profile I like to use. But for the past couple years, I've settled on the image that I now try to use everywhere online. It's my online brand and I stumbled on to it accidentally. I thought it might be interesting to share with all of you how that came about and what I learned from it.

In the middle of 2006, Howard Lindzon approached me about getting involved in a web video show he was going to produce called Wallstrip. In the initial incarnation of Wallstrip, there was going to be a daily video talking about the stock of the day, and then there was going to be about a dozen bloggers who would do a short post on what they thought of the stock as an investment idea.

Howard asked me to be one of those dozen bloggers. I thought about it for a while and then agreed to do it. Then, unbekownst to me, he asked an artist friend of his in Phoenix named Jenny to go on the web, find photos of each of the dozen bloggers, and draw up a sketch that he could use as their Wallstrip avatar. This was mine.

From the minute I saw it, I liked it. It uses my favorite color (green) as the backdrop and the eye color (my eyes are sometimes blue and sometimes green and sometimes something else). It looks like me, but not too much.

So I began to use it a bit here and there around the web as I set up new profiles. But by no means was it the only profile picture I used. For corporate oriented services like LinkedIn, I'd use my Union Square Ventures headshot. For social nets like Facebook, I'd use a regular headshot. I used a photo of me taking a photo on Flickr for a long time.

But then I started to realize that the Wallstrip avatar was becoming my online identity. People would comment about it all the time. Around the time we sold Wallstrip, Howard asked Jenny to do a real painting of it which I now have in my office at Union Square Ventures. It's a real conversation starter.

So sometime last year, I just decided to go with it everywhere. It's at the top of this blog and everywhere else I have an online identity. And I think that decision is having some important effects.

As I said earlier in this post, it's become my online brand. It's simple, small, and very recognizable. By putting it everywhere that I am online, I've used frequency and reach to power home that the avatar is me. It's become my visual handle and it's also a signature and a sign of authenticity.

But there's also a risk in standardizing on an online identity. Someone could grab that image and use it to pretend to be me. That's a concern and probably one reason why many people choose to change their profile picture/avatar on a regular basis. It hasn't happened to me yet, but I am sure it will and then I don't know what I am going to do about it.

Online identity is a big issue and a big opportunity for entrepreneurs on the web. It seems like Facebook is quickly becoming a major provider of online identity authentication and that's a smart move for them and a good thing for the web as a whole. But there is still a ton of opportunity out there to provide services in and around what Facebook and others are doing. Because online identity is powerful and becoming more intertwined with offline identity every day. My avatar is a good representation of that.

#VC & Technology#Web/Tech

Comments (Archived):

  1. David Semeria

    Interesting point regarding Facebook becoming a trusted source of identity authentication.More than a few people have asked me to provide my LinkedIn profile for authentication purposes.I would argue this ability to authenticate is a useful side effect of large non-anonymous social networks, rather than something which could be created from scratch.

    1. fredwilson


  2. Teasastips

    Unique avatar. I am looking for something that captures my brand. I’m working with a graphics specialist now. I enjoyed reading your post.

  3. Farhan Lalji

    I’ve been stuggling a lot with picking the right avatar. For a while had one that was a picture taken of me in the middle of a class at B-school that ended up on a brochure cover. But my wife said I looked old and my boss kept doing impressions of the pose. The one I’m using most places now was a more relaxed moment in Lisbon.Think avatars, like ourselves, are organic and there’s nothing wrong with continually evolving them.

  4. Nick D

    I was able to pick you out of a crowd at Piano’s the other night based on your Avatar alone. πŸ™‚

  5. Lisa Mogull

    I’ve been having an avatar debate with one of my partners. We’re working on a pet site and I say nobody wants avatars of their pets unless they are a pet owner wannabes instead of actual pet owners (guardians if you are in SF). Perhaps children want them. Adult pet owners want to show off actual photos. I do believe that people love avatars of themselves since are more interesting and can be more flattering.My partner says that people want avatars of pets the same way they want them of their children (again, I like boring people with actual photos of my kid). He says it makes them look cuter and is a unique way of showing how much the animals are friends/family.Would love to have other opinions.

  6. bijan

    great post.lauren’s photo is a pic of me with james on my shoulders walking with daughter took that photo. it was a fun day.

  7. falicon

    I think a lot of people change up their avatars for different services just because they get bored of looking at the same picture all the time…remember that the owner is generally the one that looks at the profile the most (and so they see the avatar the most and grow tired of it the fastest)…I also think it depends on how people are using services as to what type of avatar they use…a lot of people use facebook to reconnect with old friends, and so using an updated picture there is popular (people want to see how you’ve changed over the years since they last saw you). Places like LinkedIn people are trying to put forth a more professional appearance, so they usually try to pick a serious avatar/photo…places like twitter are a bit of a mix in that some are using it for serious stuff, some are using it for casual play, and I think most are using it for a mixture of both (which makes it hard to figure out the proper avatar to convey your intentions)…and systems like disqus are also a large mixture (in fact, now that I think about it, disqus should offer an option when you are posting to pick the avatar you want to use with this post…ie. do you want to use your ‘business’ avatar, your ‘friend’ avatar, or your ‘fun’ avatar?)The idea of using an avatar as part of your personal brand around the internet is fascinating to me, but I wonder how many people are positioning their internet usage correctly in their minds right now? What I mean is that there are a lot of people that are just starting to wake up to the fact that what you do all around the internet can be culled by random people to get a view on your personality…I think it’s going to be some time before the average person realizes that they already do have a ‘brand’ around the internet (and that they should be managing it).

  8. andyswan

    Changed my disqus pic because of this post. It’s important that everyone know exactly who is making these annoying, amusing and articulate comments :)And ya….that’s an awesome DERBY hat creeping into the picture. W0000000000000

  9. jquaglia

    Would it be a good idea (or possible) for commenting platforms, like Disqus, to make it impossible to “save image as” and steal users avatars?

    1. fredwilson

      I think it’s a bad idea but with screenshot tools, it’s pretty easy to do anyway

  10. monsur

    Sort of off topic, but I’ve noticed that people are using profile pictures as a communication method, like a visual Twitter. For example, after the Steelers won, I noticed a few IM profile pictures change to Steelers logos.

    1. fredwilson

      Another form of status

  11. daryn

    very cool. I assumed your avatar was from a real painting but didn’t know the back story.I’ve been using headshots for awhile, but for the past year or so, I’ve cranked up the color saturation and dropped in a bright colored background. It helps my icon pop when there are a bunch of others displayed. I’ll probably swap it out at some point (it wasn’t a very good photo to start with), and I also rotate the background colors to keep it fresh.Gravatar was one attempt at having a central avatar linked to your email address, but Facebook definitely has an opportunity to do something in both a more meaningful and authoritative way.

  12. esqmarty

    I also recognized Fred the first time I met him in person, as a result of his avatar. Fred asked me somewhat tongue in cheek about the legal protection of avatars.From a defensive point of view, I would argue that a person’s avatar is potentially protected against misappropriation, without them taking any action. Right of privacy and right of publicity laws protect against third parties using someone’s name or likeness without consent, and likeness has been interpreted broadly to include symbols associated with the person. So, for example, a guitar named Lucille might be deemed to be part of B.B. King’s persona.From a proactive point of view, the picture of Fred is certainly copyrightable, as would be an avatar in the SL sense of the term. If used to promote goods or services, avatars also function as trademarks – in fact an avatar-designer on SL has received a federal trademark registration for her avatar. So if you’re using your avatar in a commercial capacity, you should certainly look into copyright and trademark protection.

  13. kidmercury

    do people really trust facebook to provide identity authentication? this is where i think there is a real opportunities for companies to become more “government-esque” — in the sense that policymaking will be more democratic or procedural, and that companies will seek to offer communal services like identity competition for identity authentication heats up, i think companies will be forced to be more transparent to earn trust, and will even go so far as to adopt governmental structures, perhaps even complete with elections. (i think data portability runs parallel with identity authentication and reinforces the same trends). in this way the market will force private companies to become governments, which paves the way for the post-nation state world.regarding avatars: gotta go with a cartoon-esque pic as your avatar. can’t trust the youngsters who roll up with their yearbook photo as their avatar, you know they ain’t being real with you.

  14. e.p.c.

    I’ve been toying with building an avatar manager / synchronizer but keep running into a roadblock: many services with APIs and avatars/ personal icons/ whatever, don’t provide an API to update the avatar. Identity continues to be silo’d, whether it’s userids & passwords or our profile information.Twitter does provide such an API, I’m now just waiting on their oAuth rollout to launch something.The service is interesting, but again no API, and a single point of failure (though it’s hosted by the Automattic folks so I assume it’s run incredibly well).

      1. fredwilson

        Wow, we both were thinking about the same thing on the same day

  15. Frostfire

    Very interesting, only yesterday i chose this picture after a lot of thought, you don’t want to be too much of a geek, too strange, too corporate, very difficult –

    1. fredwilson

      Nice photoIsn’t it interesting to think about these choices?

  16. WasatchGirl

    Hmmm. Interesting. I use different profile pics depending on the service. My linkedin profile is the most professional picture and doesn’t ever change. While my facebook profile pic changes all the time. But I like your thoughts about one image representing an online brand, though it can be tricky to find that perfect image.Out of curiosity, can you post up the twitter links that are associated with those twitter profile pics? Hope you are well, Fred.Rachel

  17. khanan grauer

    a friend of mine, Sam Lessin, founder of wrote a very interesting post on privacy and anonymity:

  18. Rob Kornblum

    Fred- You’re right that online identity and privacy are big issues. You should check out my friends at RocketVox. They are building a unified inbox to enable control and privacy. Many people disable their FB account because of the lack of privacy (applying to grad school, new job, etc.)

  19. kylec

    I’m pretty happy with my current avatar (used here with Disqus and also on twitter and linkedin and facebook), but it sometimes gets too shrunk down.i’d really like an illustration though, especially as a designer.

    1. Zach Coelius

      And think of how far they have to go. We’ll look back some day at these little thumbnails and laugh at how poorly they served to represent our identities.

    2. Dan T

      I went the bargain route for my avatar – – used the guy who will “Draw anything for $2” to see what I would get. Not as arsty as some but definitely worth $2 πŸ™‚

  20. Mark

    I agree, Fred. I have had similar intentions with mine.

  21. howard lindzon

    i love that story because it brings back good startup memories. brian Shannon started using his.they artist who dies these is

    1. fredwilson

      Good memories indeedThanks for the comment. I finally got around to updating the post withJenny’s name and link to her site. She’s amazing.

  22. ppearlman

    link to doughty’s twitter page please

      1. ppearlman

        tx bro.. i went to @mikedoughty and got this guy… and thought, uh, thataint the guy standing on the williamsburg bridge crying hey man this isbabylon…

        1. fredwilson

          I love that he’s mikedoughtyyeah

          1. ppearlman

            I lov that he’s on twitter..:)

  23. Diego Sana

    I have an avatar kinda like yours too, and i`m using it everywhere but facebook/linkedin. I also think of it as my online brand, and i`m really not worried about sick people using it pretending to be me (i`m not famous as you though, but nowadays this kind of stuff could happen to anyone, i saw it toons of times when i was running a photolog in Brazil). I believe that, if someone ever fake your profile, use your real photos could harm a lot more than this simple colorful picture (and that`s why i`ve been avoiding uploading pictures of myself to social sites).

    1. fredwilson

      Good point

  24. Dan T

    disregard – can’t delete a comment

  25. Rick Field

    What is noteworthy to me about this Avatar image how well it also functions in miniature. At the top of the screen, the single eye peers out and connects.

    1. fredwilson

      Nathan Bowers came up with that single eye trickI like it too

  26. simondodson

    ive always preferred the panel

    1. fredwilson

      The panel?

  27. jaymeydad

    Couple of years, when our oldest was 3 years old, we had a street artist drawing a great portrait of him in less than 5 minutes.…I should visit the zoo again then and get one for myself. See if it works better than my current profile photo which I really like (thanks to Alex Sirota of Foxytunes).

  28. TanyaMonteiro

    and boy is it yet another reminder of how much is in our own hands these days!Thanks, great article:)

  29. PhotoHand

    Looking as attractive as possible can boost your online popularity, according to a recent study by Michigan State University. The researchers found that Facebook users who had posts on their wall from attractive friends were considered to be significantly better looking than people who had postings from unattractive friends.