Tony Karrer's eLearning Blog on e-Learning Trends eLearning 2.0 Personal Learning Informal Learning eLearning Design Authoring Tools Rapid e-Learning Tools Blended e-Learning e-Learning Tools Learning Management Systems (LMS) e-Learning ROI and Metrics

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Profile Photos

I received a response that I didn't expect on my post Profile Photo.

In that post, I suggested that you should always add a profile photo:

Don't join that new Ning group without attaching your photo. Add it to your Elluminate and WebEx profiles.

Because profile photos help me:

  • Believe that you are a real person and begin to connect with you.
  • Remember you.
  • Believe you are serious.

I also suggested that for business networking:

  • Don't use anything other that photorealistic photos.
  • Have a reasonably complete LinkedIn profile.

The comments I received basically told me that I'm making unfair, snap judgments and I'm showing my bias. And I want to thank everyone who commented and who called me on that bias.

You are quite right that I'm biased. But let's set the context here –

  • I don't already know you or your name.
  • I'm running into you on a business networking site.
  • All I have is often your Photo, Name and sometimes a Company and Title.
  • I have limited time.
  • My goals are generally directed learning goals or maybe I'm thinking about issues with my business or my clients.
  • I need to quickly decide if I'm going to spend time with you and/or your content. Will this be a smart use of time?

That sounds horrible. I'm going to use that little bit of information to decide if I will go look you up on LinkedIn, or send you a message about something, or otherwise interact. But that's the reality of what happens.

And profile photos are part of the picture.

This is not new. It's happened for years at business mixers. People need to control their time as part of in-person networking. They also make snap judgments at business mixers. And they have the person, their name, possibly title and company. They make quick judgments. They choose to speak to your or not.

I'm not saying this is fair or right … I'm saying this micro-decision is going on all the time and you are not likely to change it (although you've got me to think about my own bias). I think you ignore it at your peril.

Now consider the impression left by the images that I've pulled down from various business networking sites shown below. And consider that people are going to make snap judgments on whether they will spend time.

image imageimageimageimageimageimageimage

Dating and Profile Photos

Because I was involved in eHarmony at the start (see Matching Algorithm), I may be especially sensitive to this subject. eHarmony was (and is) quite different from dating sites in that the true vision was to create successful (happy and long) marriages. And they have been successful doing that. For a long time eHarmony resisted showing pictures because of the belief that this skews someone's impression of the individual, and you may choose someone other than your soul mate because of a profile photo. Users demanded a profile photo.

This is not much of a surprise. Here's what was found on Yahoo personals:

When our researchers looked at personal photo statistics, here's what they've found:

  • A profile with one personal photo receives five times as many replies as a profile without a personal photo.
  • A profile with three photos receives seven times as many replies as a profile without a personal photo.
  • A profile with five photos receives nine times as many replies as a profile without a photo.

Granted, eHarmony has a very different mission and purpose from a personals site like Yahoo, but profile photos turned out to be important there as well.

And what does this tell us – profile photos are important.

Profile Photos Other Opinions and Advice

Seth Godin tells us that profile photos are important in business as well:

If it's important enough for you to spend your time finding and connecting with new people online, it's important enough to get the first impression right.

If you use any online social network tool, the single most important first impression you make is with the 3600 to 5000 pixels you get for your tiny picture.

Seth's number 6 advice backs me up on conceptual photos/images:

6. Conceptual photos (your foot, a monkey wearing glasses) may give us insight into the real you, but perhaps you could save that insight for the second impression.

There's definitely belief in the book business (and some debate) that having the right picture is very important for book sales.

Antonia Hodgson, the editor-in-chief at the publisher Little, Brown, it’s more important than ever, “The author photo is now just the beginning of a process of getting to know the author.”

And I would claim profile photos are the starting point in building a relationship online.

A couple of other interesting links that I found on this topic:

Closing Thought

One closing thought – you may look good in a bathing suit, but you don't wear it to a business mixer. Or at least I think I would remember you if you did. Instead, you look the part. Profile photos are part of your image, your brand. Look the part.


Janet Clarey said...

"Look the part" kind of says it all doesn't it? It says 'be suitable' for the situation. And that brings a ton of old baggage on what suitability is and is not.

We need to ditch old baggage. Sociological images is a good site that challenges old mindsets. See this for instance:

The web gives us a unique opportunity to stop judging.

Tony Karrer said...

Great point Janet! And I just had a comment on the other post from SubQuark explaining the use of different profile images based on the particular site. If you are on a professional, business networking site, you may use one thing. Facebook and Twitter may be a cross-over of personal and professional - so there the answer is a bit different for different people.

Good point on the default avatars as well - highly skewed white/male.

I do think we should be careful about the term judging. You say stop "judging" - which I don't see ever happening. You make a whole lot of micro-judgments all the time. Some of them about people, interaction, time spent, content around them, etc.

One thing that's good about the web is that there's a better chance for content to come first and then you see the person after. That happens a fair bit.

But in a lot of social networking sites - the profile comes first.

You look at an event and decide if you should go. You quickly scan the participants who are attending and you do some quick searching on their backgrounds and you decide if you will spend the time. Or could you get more by spending a couple hours online with LinkedIn, Ning, etc.

All that said - I think you really summarized it well with "look the part" ...

Betsy Hansel said...

Profile photos do say a lot and need to be carefully chosen. But the command to "smile" may not always be appropriate.

I followed the link and found this comment toward the end of the article:
"Interestingly, after the participation in a long discussion in one of the groups, the Technical Head of AK Aerotek Software Centre Pvt Ltd, Amitabh Mukherjee admitted that he would replace his unsmiling photo with a smiling one. However, it seemed to be a surprising post when Ernest Nnagbo of Epoxy Oilserv Limited claimed that, in Africa, it was not acceptable to have a passport with a smiling photo irrespective of gender as it gave an impression of disguise."

I don't know if one person speaks for all 50 some nations and multiple cultures of Africa, but the point should be well taken and not dismissed. A smile may look like a smirk, condescending, and more, depending on the context and the culture.

Also to consider: do you have any background or context in your photo that helps highlight who you are and what you want to project. It may not be just about your head.

Jon Aleckson said...

Thanks, Tony. I am going to change my LinkedIn profile photo today.

Dave Van Verth said...

Tony, Long time reader of your blog; first time comment. I couldn't agree more that you should represent yourself honestly and professionally in all vocational networking sites, but seriously, tell us what you really think!:)

David Hopkins said...

Tony, I find myself ignoring many people who either don't use a profile picture (at all) or something really silly like a picture of them drunk of in some compromising position/situation.

Tony Karrer said...

Betsy - thanks for the thoughts. Great point that the picture needs to be appropriate given the cultural norms.

Dave - thanks for the first comment. Hope you will find other opportunities to engage. And I guess I was a little too passionate, eh? :)

David - Thanks for saying that. I was starting to wonder if it was only me that had this "bias".

Maris and Iris Salmins said...


I am going to Tweet your blog. It is a real reality check.

Iris Salmins
EJL and Associates
Collection Agency for the Media Industry

Sue Waters said...

My personal opinion is people should use a real photo and their real names on social networking sites because 1) it makes it considerably easier for others to relate to them as a real person (helps build relationships and create connections) and 2) extremely important for personal branding.

However with educators who can't use the real name or image of their students it is probably more important that they model the online behavior that is required of their students.

Anonymous said...

"...extremely important for personal branding." This is the exact reason I do not use a photo. Another photo of a middle-aged white guy is just not good branding for me (albeit a fun loving French Canadian - nonetheless, rather nondescript in appearance).

Otherwise Nike, Apple, and Coca-Cola would have photos of someone. How seriously can I take a swoosh, dynamic wave, or an apple?

As Tony said, it depends on the application and goal. My little beaver in Second Life is well-recognized and has lots of personal meaning to me (busy as a . . . , major part of Quebec history, and I just smile when I see it).

If my avatar was just my face, I would not receive nearly the same amount of business in Second Life.

A good read on avatars can be had at (over 10,000 RSS subscriptions) as far as blogging, branding, and various social networking.

Tony Karrer said...

Sue - good point around educators. Would they ever use a blank one? Or do you recommend they use something else?

Subquark - Good point. It's really about a combination of brand image and connection. Because of your focus and branding, I buy that having an alternative kind of image may make a lot of sense. I guess that would be true for a graphic artist or other creative types.

That said - I would caution that while you may feel your picture is a nondescript, "middle age white guy" - it still feels more like a real person just by seeing it. I feel a little less connected to you without that image. The word "faceless" comes to mind.

Paul Angileri said...

I started attaching at least one good photo of me to all of my social networking profiles. Granted, I didn't start hitting social networking hard until recently, but I looked at it the same way as if I were looking for work: Present your best self first; don't give anyone a reason to ignore you right away.

I'm not implying a personal caricature image is grounds for ignoring them, but unfortunately people can be fickle about these things, fair or not. I once had someone comment to me on a non-professional email address of mine. They said it seemed to imply something negative. This was the only person ever to have mentioned it to me, and for the life of me I still can't see the person's POV on it. There's certainly no profanity of vulgarity in the email address, yet someone had a mildly negative reaction to it and at the very least seemed to imply that the very structure of the email address would likely preclude that person from communicating with me.

Betsy's point about how smiles on passports are taken is interesting as well. My culture would have me think the exact opposite, that a passport photo with a stoic straight-on photo of me would look a lot like a mug shot for the local clink, and that a smiling picture would be better. Are we seeing the bleeding of competing cultural norms into the realm of netiquette?

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Tony Karrer said...

Paul - good question on the cultural issues around pictures.

Actually, the email address is also a good call. In fact, that needs it's own post.

Sue Waters said...

Sorry for slow response but my comment tracking is barely working now :(

Normally teachers and students create their own avatars using sites for creating them. Here is a good post that talks about school views on using photos of students and provides links to sites that students can use to create their avatars.

The whole use of student images is an extremely heated topic and you are less likely to have problems with parents if you avoid use of student images, even if consent had been previously given. One way educators deal with it, while still including photos, is to take photos from behind students doing any work.