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Monday, May 16, 2011

Avatars on Twitter And Why They Matter

There has been quite a bit of discussion over my nearly 2 years on Twitter regarding profile pictures people use, or Avatars, or “AVIs” for short. These discussions revolve around marketing buzzwords like “brand,” and I'll discuss that a little here … but primarily around “what makes a good one for general purposes” and indeed the importance of having SOMETHING up there rather than the default, which makes you or anyone else … look like a spammer.
Now don't judge me by mine because although I'm a great photographer and digital editor but I can't put in what God's left out … hehehe …. I started with a formal shirt/tie shot of myself taken on my birthday, then one day changed it to a face only with a “brick wall design” around the edge. 30 minutes later I get a CALL from Tammy Burnell, who said “Why did you change your avatar?!?! I almost missed you in my timeline! Don't EVER EVER EVER change your avatar!!.”

Well, after holding the phone a foot from my ear and then promptly changing my PANTS (!!!), I took that as good advice :-) A picture, especially of your face, is the most personal and “bonding” thing you can have up on Twitter. People (and especially according to Tammy) learn to see that “first,” rather than the words next to the pic. Therefore, if you want what you tweet “SEEN,” it's a good idea to stick with the familiarity that is YOU, seen by thousands/millions … and not stray once you pick a “good-un.”

If you own a company, then obviously your logo might be better … if that's what you're going for on Twitter, “brand” again … then fine. “Bob's Discount Penguin Trousers” is probably left at a company logo, Bob might look like death warmed up and his photo won't correlate with the product. For most of us however, who are on Twitter to meet people, share views/blogs, get their news or laughs or enjoy reading other folks' tweets … a personal photo is indeed best IMO. I've seen some fantastic avis on Twitter, some people opting for a graphic design or “oil painting look,” or perhaps their whole body frame. The problem with more than head & shoulders is that people are vertical. They go “up” more than out (in most cases) … and the avatar shape is SQUARE. Therefore uploading a pic of yourself should be square in shape, or Twitter will “square it for you,” and either cut off your bottom half or the top of your head.

Many pics are self-taken with a cellphone, either holding away from you or capturing a mirror reflection. While these are fine to get “started,” remember the image is 180 degrees reversed being in a mirror, you've probably got mirror flash, it will be distorted and … well … “meh.” Not that great. Get a friend to take your picture or make sure your arm's out of the shot.
I've “refurbished/improved/tweaked” avatars for many friends on here, roughly 20 now … and some that were submitted to me were shall we say “a tad personal.” While you might be a knockout, in my opinion excessive cleavage, pants bulge, “naughty bits” could all be considered almost “sex-bot” ish and may get you blocked rather than followed. WORSE … it can lead to a lot of “interested followers,” and I don't mean interested in your teats. I mean tweets. Avoiding the horrid “stalker types” is hard enough in social media, especially for women … don't invite even more of the detritus by advertising the wrong thing. People are interested (or should be if they're worth following or following back in the first place) in your content, your personality, what you like, what you bring, how you engage. So face only is a good thing and the BEST thing as far as I'm concerned.

What you (we) have to remember is that the picture is SMALL as an AVI (avatar/profile pic) ... and unless someone actually clicks on it (which is possible, to see it larger) most of the time it "flies by" in the stream. It has to "pop" as I like to say ... vivid, reasonably "sharp" (I hate simple sharpeners) and vivid color, if it is color. The image should be clean of dust spots, lens flare, extraneous white “blow out” light, weird backgrounds like a palm tree growing out of your head, or part of another person in the shot with you. Twitter is about YOU. It's YOUR Twitter. Make the photo reflect we're looking at YOU and YOU only.

If your current avatar needs some “tweaking,” so it “pops” on Twitter and especially Twitter clients like Seesmic, Twittelator or TweetDeck, then for laughs let's look at what I do & have done for 20 or so friends here over the last 2 years when they send me an avatar to “fix:”
The techniques I use include but are not limited to:
  1. Brightness/contrast fixing
  2. Color correction & enhancing
  3. DENOISING without blur (ESSENTIAL and especially in smaller files!)
  4. Unsharp masking (to highlight image EDGE sharpness & contrast)
  5. Spot/Dust removal and blending of anomalies if pixellated
  6. Chromatic aberration (otherwise known as "purple fringing," common in digital photos)
  7. Proper sizing 8x8 for avatar (so there's no drop off top or bottom)
  8. Suitable resizing in the number of bytes (so Twitter will accept it)
The roughly 20 I've done for friends came out great, they received many compliments, and they stand out in a "timeline." Judging from the folks who tweet with them, I'd like to think they're some of the best on Twitter. So often the "photo" is bad and the subject thinks it's them ... there's nothing wrong with you (the subject!) ... it's a crappy digital photo, perhaps taken with inferior phone-cam, etc.
Often a group shot of you and other people has enough data on it to crop properly and make an avatar, so consider using other photos and let me do the rest. I may make alternate "creative graphic arts" versions which you're free to like or dislike, but you have options. An example would be "oil painting" type image.

Should you elect to have something improved, my $15-$20 charge (paid in advance to PayPal and no endless variation edits please!) is for the 1-2 hours I will spend; there are at least 4 processes and I'm very picky. For instance, selected regions for denoising rather than a "one shot fix all" approach ... often dark hair, or background, or shadows under eyes (camera's fault) ... need denoising. "Noise" is the digital equivalent of film grain ~ very common in small file size photos. I've managed to make 20K files look better, it's obviously better to start with 300K plus, 2MB is great ... THEN reduce final version to 700K for Twitter upload. I make several variations including creative ones, which can be either “frames” around the edges or “oil paintings,” or “infra-red filter, lomo, orton effect, etc.” The bigger the file, the more DATA can be improved ... the more we have to work with, in other words :-) NOW … important: Often I've done one, several versions/variations … and a week later got 4-5 more photos to “play around with;” unfortunately I don't have endless amounts of time to play with a dozen files for one avatar.

One last comment on the “creative” versions … a lot of “FX” are considered cheesy; heck, phone apps will do those nowadays. I'd personally stick with a true PHOTOGRAPH, show the real you, or if you're privacy concerns prohibit that then at least make the colors VIVID (saturated) and properly centered with no noise/clutter/spots in them.

I hope this helps some of you … it is imperative you at least have SOMETHING and not the generic egg or bird or whatever they're using this week for generic avatars … personal is everything on social media, and it seems to be MOST ESPECIALLY on Twitter. Remember my gold rule … there are none … just be yourself. It's worked for me. Yes, sadly, that is the real me on there and so are my tweets … pray for me would you?!?! :-D
Be safe everyone / Paul @PaulBritPhoto on Twitter
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