When you live online, your avatar means everything

If you search the web for pictures of me, it’s most likely you’ll only find an avatar. Until last week, the avatar I was using was this:

Rumena old avatarI used the website FaceYourManga.com to create it. It does look a lot like me – the form of the face is similar, the colour of the eyes, hairdo, even the clothes – my favourite shirt at the time of making was pink and I do have a white heart-shaped accessory I sometimes wear with it.

What you most likely won’t find, however, is a real photo of me. It’s not a coincidence.

I’ve been deliberately avoiding uploading real photos of me, and trying to keep other people from doing so. In the age of Google, that is important to me. I am terrified by face recognition software and the results a simple data search and / or analysis is able to produce. It’s also part of my offline privacy – especially in the UK, where cameras are everywhere, some of them with face recognition capabilities. I believe privacy isn’t just something people need when they have ‘something to hide’ – for me, it’s a basic human right and need, to choose who knows what about you and how they are able to access / analyse that information.

At the same time, I am very active online. And most websites expect a profile picture – I didn’t want to use a photo, but neither did I want to use some clipart graphic. So I decided an avatar would be a good solution – it gives a ‘human’ feel, it can be customised to look almost like you, but it’s not a real photo.

Last week I cut my hair. So the long-hair-pink-shirt avatar became redundant – it didn’t look like me anymore, and more importantly, I didn’t like looking at my ‘old self’ when going online. So I updated the hair and shirt. Here is my avatar today:

Rumena's new avatarNow for most people, updating a mangatar (that’s how the folks at FaceYourManga call these avatars) isn’t a big deal. But for me, a person that only uses an avatar for her online identity, it has a more complicated meaning. What I didn’t expect, however, were people’s reactions.

A friend I only know from Twitter said that he can’t recognise me – and that even though he kinda thought he knew me before, he doesn’t feel like he knows me anymore. It’s just a change in hair and shirt – but for him, it changed more.

I have another friend on Last.fm (the social network for music fans) with whom I exchanged a few emails a year ago, and since then, we haven’t really been in touch. We’re both not very active on Last.fm – I do use the service, but I’m not going to the site very often; he goes there even more rarely. But last week, he noticed I had changed my avatar – and he immediately decided I must have done something with my hair. So he contacted me to say Hi and ask if there was a particular reason for me to make that change. He didn’t for a second think ‘it could be just the avatar’ – he was sure the avatar was representing a change I made in real life.

Another friend of mine that I also only know virtually (although we have exchanged real photos), when he first saw the new avatar, contacted me to say that the new hair ‘looks good on me’.

Now wait a second. It’s a stylised, cartoonish avatar. It doesn’t even represent the exact hairdo. So how can you say that it does or doesnt ‘look good on me’? Seems like people give much more meaning to this avatar than I thought. The avatar has its own life. Its own face, mood, identity. So when I change the hair and shirt, it’s like a real makeover.

What is more, the reaction to my new hair style hasn’t been that intense in real life. Some people didn’t even notice it at first, and only mentioned: ‘Oh, you’ve changed your hairdo’ a few minutes after they first saw me. Maybe this has to do with the fact their idea of me is more layered – for them, Rumi means more than just appearance (or I would hope so 🙂 ) – it also has to do with my clothes, posture, the tone of my voice, etc.

But for people online, who only see a text + avatar version of me, the change meant everything.


4 thoughts on “When you live online, your avatar means everything

  1. I have to admit I did wonder why no ‘real image’ of you online. I also wondered if I would recognise you around uni if I actually saw someone who looked similar to the avatar.

    Very thought provoking though….not to mention a well written piece.


    • Thanks, Dean. I know people who don’t give their real name online, but gladly connect their pen name with their real-life photos. Different people, different motivations. For me, I need to be able to control who has a picture of me, and this doesn’t include public web servers.

      By the way, I think there is a chance you’d recognize me at uni, even if you’ve only seen the avatar. It’d be interesting.

      I haven’t seen you round yet, but I’m guessing this year we’ll get to finally meet offline 😉 I’ll make sure I say hi if I see you.


  2. A very good piece indeed. As you can see I also don’t use my real pic. And I also agree that you have the right to privacy. As humans, when not facing the aspect of not using our real life picture or images. We tend to find the closet thing that resembles us, or represents our personality, but without revealing to the world what we look like in life. As for making changes in our avatars or images, most shouldn’t take it so literally that you actually made the changes in real life. God knows how many times I changed my user names through out the years. Not to mention my avatars.

    As for those that think by changing your avatar means everything..they really need to a get a grip. One of my former friends; she wouldn’t show me what she looked like via a pic. At the end I accepted that she wouldn’t show me (she left for a different reason).


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