Identity, and Self-Expression

Chris puts forth the argument that gravatars should humanize the web. I agree with his premise, but not his conclusion. Gravatars should help personalize the web, and not necessarily humanize it.

Self Expression

Blogs are all about self-expression. Everything about a blog -- from the blog engine, to the layout, to the links, to the main content -- tells us a little about the owner. Likewise the comments left by others reveal to us who else reads the site, from which we can infer even more information about the blog owner. If you read a lot of blogs, chances are that you'll see any particular blog owner leaving comments elsewhere, too, which provides still more information about the person behind the blog. None of this has anything to do with what the blog owner looks like.

We don't get to know people off-line just by their appearance. We get to know them based on their style, their idiosyncracies, and their mannerisms: things they do and not just things they are. So in a sense, a gravatar is just a kind of internet tee shirt to complement the mannerisms presented on a blog or comment. A gravatar, just like a catchy handle or a unique blog layout, tells a lot more about the person than what they look like can ever reveal.


Chris closes with I am a person and I have something to say, and I should not be afraid to say it... as me.. Clearly Chris wants to synchronize his online identity with his offline identity. I'm generally striving for the same confluence, but that's not what everyone wants. Some seek pure escapism; others seek a refinement or exaltation of their everyday self. Still others want pure anonymity.

The internet allows people to put forth the identity they want others to see. If someone wants to present an anime character as their gravatar, then I know something about that person that I would never know just from looking at their photograph. Moreover, our identities are rarely immutable. Instead they grow and change subtly over time as we experience and learn new things. Should our gravatars be flat, static pictures?

A gravatar, as a type of avatar, is something more than just a representation of a person's physical characteristics or some thing(s) in which they're interested. It's an archetype, an "ideal example", of something. A photograph of ourselves seems to fall short.


Chris talks about people, but he doesn't mention community. The internet presents tremendous opportunities for communities to develop and flourish. As social creatures, our identities, or at the very least how we express those identities, shift slightly based on the contexts in which we present them. The self we present on a joke-sharing blog may be very different from the self we present on a tech-support blog. The "face" I apply to comments on my own blog might be very different from the one I use when I comment on someone else's blog.

In some contexts, we want to show our affilitations, which have nothing to do with how we look. A close-knit group, like game clans for example, could coordinate gravatars among their members, using their in-game identities on a discussion. A veterans group might want to display an insignia. A group project -- something fantastical like Ghyll or something serious like Wikipedia -- might merit a different presentation of our identity than our personal blog.

An Identity Infrastructure

Since gravatars are keyed off of email addresses, one could (conceivably) register several different gravatars against several different email accounts: one for a personal account, one for a GMail account, etc. Thus when posting a comment the commenter could choose -- based on comment content, or some other factor -- which visual representation of their identity should be applied to their comment by selecting the appropriate email address. Over time, though, this becomes tedious; and it forces us to adapt to the tool instead of the other way around.

And gravatars aren't just for blog comments. Gravatars are tool-agnostic, and can be leveraged in almost any online community context. I can envision a Mozilla Thunderbird extension that displays gravatars on email messages (akin to X-Face from days of old). Some instant messaging clients already support "buddy icons", which should easily be extended to support gravatars.

If gravatars represent an infrastructure for expanded self-expression and identity, does it really make sense that each person must use multiple email accounts to represent all of their gravatars? Certainly the single-gravatar-per-email encourages people to think a little more about what they use for a gravatar, but it imposes an artificial restriction.

A Solution

I like the idea of gravatars, but I don't like being required to use one gravatar for every site. I'm sure others don't either. So I've modified the original WordPress gravatar plugin. Here's what my version does: In a sense, this plugin strays pretty far from the original idea of a globally recognized avatar. But in another sense, it greatly expands it. Not only does this pluign make the gravatar infrastructure more resilient by distributing where gravatars are stored, it makes gravatars more flexible by allowing site-specific gravatars. It is my belief that this aspect will encourage more people to register for blogs, something which currently doesn't offer much benefit. It is my hope that registered users will grow into contributing authors, making blogging even more interesting than it is now. And finally this plugin makes gravatars something much more than just comment eye candy, by making them available inside the body of a post.

Gravatars may help make the web more human; but I'll be happy with them making the web more personal.

Download the plugin at my Gravatars plugin page This plugin only works with WordPress 1.5 and above.
Thanks to Vidar for testing this plugin!


home / about / flickr / github / keybase / linkedin