John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche

Avatars and Icons

avatars icons

In many online groups, people chose an image, often called an “icon” or “avatar,” to represent themselves. Usually it’s a tiny square image that accompanies the text messages or other images that they use to communicate with others. In some virtual worlds like Second Life, the avatar is bigger, modifiable, and an actual “being” who interacts physically with other avatars in that world. The icon may be an actual photograph of the person, but not always. It can take on a wide variety of forms.

Whatever choice people make, their icons always possess psychological and emotional characteristics. Sometimes the qualities of the icons directly parallel the personality characteristics of their owners. They may consciously recognize this connection and choose the icons for that reason.

In some cases people may not realize they possess the traits depicted in their icons, even though their friends or family members might be able to see that correlation. And in some cases the association between the characteristics of icons and their owners may be hidden from both the owners as well as from the people who know them.

It’s rarely a simple formula in which the qualities of the avatar directly reflect the personality of the individual who chooses it. Sometimes the icon represents something that one wishes to be true about oneself. It might reflect a trait that one hopes to develop. It might represent an idealized version of oneself. It might even present characteristics that are the opposite of how one usually appears. Icons might express what people fear to be true about themselves, even though it may not be true at all. It may reflect some negative aspect of their identity that they express through the icon.

To make matters even more complex, a single icon may serve several of these functions simultaneously.

It's not unusual for people to change their icons. Some do so often, others rarely. Switching avatars may reflect the need to express a new aspect of your identity, being tired of the “old” you, or a desire for others to perceive you differently. Switching icons too frequently may make it more difficult for others to recognize who you are. Your identity may even seem a bit unstable.

Here are some of the most common types of icons:

The Real Person: Many people use photos of themselves as their icons. Essentially, it’s a tiny self-portrait, a literal snapshot of some aspect of their personality. Depending on facial expression, body language, clothes, and image processing, the avatar could express almost anything about them. Because icons tend to be small, the psychological characteristics of a full figure shot will depend on the person’s body language and how the image is processed. The qualities of a head shot will be determined largely by the facial expression chosen: friendly, serious, seductive, inquisitive, etc. Due to the typically small size of an icon, people sometimes choose to show only part of their face: eyes, for people who want that emotionally powerful psyche-to-psyche connection, or lips, for a more sensual and seductive appearance. How clearly the person can be seen in the icon may reveal how much they want their true self revealed.

Animals: Because animals symbolize certain attributes in myth as well as popular culture (e.g., strength, loyalty, grace, independence, cunningness, transcendence), the animal chosen for an icon probably holds psychological significance for the person - perhaps representing some real aspect of his or her identity, or some characteristic admired by the person. Thinking in the tradition of the Native American, we might even regard an animal icon as being an individual's "totem" - i.e., a symbol of one's essential nature or potential.

Cartoons: While younger people may be more inclined to don cartoon icons, older folks might use them as well. The psychological significance of the cartoon character probably affects the choice made by the person. People select characters with whom they identify or admire. Some cartoon characters have very specific cultural significance and may even represent archetypal personality types (e.g., Bugs Bunny as the confident trickster; Aladdin's genie as the powerful but benevolent friend). Rather than relying on childhood cartoon figures, some adults use cartoon avatars of a more sophisticated style - some of these classified as "anime." The psychological tone of these icons tend to be more seductive, whimsical, or mysterious.

Celebrities: Celebrity icons tend to follow trends in popular culture. There may be a variety of motives behind their use. People may want to express personality traits or social issues that are associated with the celebrity's image (sensuality, intelligence, power, corruption, rebellion, etc.). They may identify with, desire, or be poking fun at these attributes. Or they may hope to bolster their self-esteem and identity by establishing their connection to the celebrity.

Menacing Icons: Everyone has a dark or “evil” side to his or her personality. Usually it has something to do with aggressive fantasies and/or feelings of guilt. Note how many Halloween costumes fit this category. As a form of sublimation, evil costumes allow people to safely - and even creatively - express their dark side. Some people may use evil or aggressive avatars as a way (consciously or unconsciously) to alienate or "put off" other people. This might indicate their anxiety about intimacy and being vulnerable.

Power: Power icons are symbols of... well... power. Many, if not all, people have conscious or unconscious fantasies of omnipotence. Who wouldn't want strength and invulnerability? These types of icons seem to be most common among male adolescent users. In some cases the power theme is benign. Sometimes not, which may be a variation of the "evil" avatar.

Seduction: These might include partially naked or scantily clothed figures. Some people using seductive icons wish to be admired as an attractive, sexy individual, without necessarily being interested in flirting. A seductive, sexy, or simply attractive icon can have a powerful impact on other people. Even though they suspect or know for sure that the real person looks nothing like the icon, they tend to be attracted to it nevertheless. Perhaps some people enjoy the illusion of interacting with (and hopefully winning over) an attractive person. Perhaps, as many critics of contemporary culture claim, some people can't resist the temptation of superficial appearances, despite knowing better. Or perhaps some people are just curious, "Who *IS* that person using that sexy icon?"

Strange Icons: Some icons are unusual, strange, and downright bizarre images - perhaps revealing people who like to startle, surprise, or play tricks on others. Truly bizarre avatars might make you wonder about the person's grasp of social appropriateness, or even their mental health. Very unusual icons are most popular among adolescents - for whom extreme behavior is a way to express independence and individuality, or to test the limits of what others will conventions will tolerate.

Abstracts: Abstract icons tend to be used by people who enjoy visual design and non-verbal conceptual thinking. Because such inanimate icons tend to appear impersonal as a representation of a human being, other people may find it a bit difficult to sense a real person behind the icon.

These are just some of the types of avatars people may choose, and some of the reasons why they use them. If you look around you'll see others. And if you ask people why they chose their particular avatar, you'll not only discover other motives behind this aspect of self-representation in cyberspace, but you'll also probably make a personal connection with those people.

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Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche