Identity, and Self-Expression


<gravatar />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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

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