Even I Don’t Recognize Myself Anymore

I changed my Twitter avatar on Monday night. Other than displaying a maple leaf on Canada Day (I’m married to a Canadian), this is the most significant change to my account since I first logged into the site in February of 2010. Why is this relevant to anything? Because it’s like I don’t even recognize myself anymore. I tweeted yesterday, more succinctly, “I changed my profile picture last night and now I’m having the kind of existential crisis that only ends with the purchase of a convertible.” Frankly, the threat of my wife’s displeasure at me showing up with a fancy new ride was the only thing keeping this from being true.

Now admittedly, I use a different profile picture, avatar, avi or whatever the kids are calling them these days on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, LinkedIn and Instagram, but it seems like once I settle on a photo, I stick with it. Honestly, it’s likely because I’m not particularly photogenic and have a Pangaea sized forehead with a hair style that can only be described as the 1985 David Letterman/Phil Collins.

What I discovered after changing my avatar was an ample number of positive comments from my online friends about the new picture and that was really nice. I also noticed a difference in the response to my tweets. Some individuals who typically react to my comments and thoughts were noticeably absent, while I was getting feedback from people who I’d never seen before. It was almost as if I was a brand new person throwing ideas out into the ether at a completely new audience. I didn’t even recognize my own avatar in my timeline a couple of times, illustrating that while Twitter is the most text-based of all social media platforms, the impact of your avatar cannot be discounted. How does this relate to the work environment? Understanding that even a simple change to a company ‘picture’ such as a logo or brand design can have serious negative ramifications on how customers react to your messaging.

I despise the buzzword “personal brand.” In essence, it monetizes identity in ways that may appear harmless, but actually perpetuates the idea that even when you are online in a personal capacity, you are always working or selling yourself to others. Back in grad school, we talked about technology and performing identity and lots of fancy ways to say that we interact with the world differently when we eat pizza while tweeting than we do while sitting at a dinner table conversing with other humans. Now for the most part, except for people creating fictional identities of themselves for Match.com (you can Photoshop out the unibrow from that 1996 sunset beach photo), we are ourselves online. Even though it’s us, it’s only a static representation of us. I’d like to think that I’m myself on Twitter and Facebook, with the most boring parts stripped out. But that’s where the idea of personal brand comes in, because for most of us, we pick an avatar and stick with it. It becomes the primary representation of how people recognize us, and when we change that image, people we associate with online suffer the cognitive dissonance related to their expectations—we are reading the same things, but seeing it in a different and unexpected manner. In other words, no matter where you move the cheese, most people are still going to be baffled and muttering to themselves when it isn’t in the meat and cheese drawer in the fridge.

So when you make a change to a logo or redesign a website, a lot of thought needs to be put into it. The impact can be unexpected, and it isn’t easy to just flip a switch and change it back. Last night, after a moment of regret, I changed my avatar back to the familiar. Within seconds, I had a message from a friend asking me why I went back to the old one so quickly and telling me they had liked the new one. I could become a serial avatar changer because it doesn’t cost me anything, but organizations invest a lot of time and money to alter their branding, and that’s something that can’t be done on a whim.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to Photoshop some forehead hair on my avatar before the five-head jokes start rolling in.

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3 Responses to “Even I Don’t Recognize Myself Anymore”

  1. MeetingBoy says:

    You have 24 hours to change your avatar back before I enlist my MeetingBoy Army to start harassing you. You have been warned.

  2. Joel Ingersoll says:

    I will take this under serious advisement since the MeetingBoy Army is both a focused and punctual group.

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