Facing up to our facts

nursery name pegs

For people of my generation who went to school in the early 70’s, the image above is probably typical. Even before we could read or write our names, most of us were encouraged to associate them with ‘our space’. I say encouraged but we had no choice. We were probably also encouraged to link that space with an image. I imagine there were some schools where that image was a self portrait, a family photo or a school mug shot Polaroid. In some cases I imagine that image and space was associated with gender.

We went along with this, we had no choice.

This was all aimed at us knowing what was ours and what was someone else’s and others knowing what was ours and what we associated with. We probably conformed to many other socially accepted norms related to our space and identity as we grew up.

As we gained our sense of self, we made choices about our identity. We learned it was possible to defy accepted norms, rebel and even disassociate with certain things, groups or networks. But we also made conscious choices to join networks and fit in. This involved conforming to some basics where we were again expected to identify ourselves. But this allowed us a choice.

Most social network profiles provide space for names, images and a summary. When we create an individual profile, we are expected and encouraged to provide personal content to create the optimum experience for interaction. We are expected to give something of ourselves as you would in any physical introduction; a handshake; a smile; a name badge. Most profile spaces encourage us to provide an image of our faces. That’s probably why they have a head and shoulder icon.

egg linked

That and the names of some of the networks are a bit of a clue as to what is expected and to what we should choose.

Not all social networks may ‘need’ your photo. Like the school cloakroom, an associated image used on private or social profiles is fine. But maybe not on what I’d call professional individual profiles; LinkedIn, Twitter and definitely an office Intranet/Internal email/Instant message system if they are set up for facial images to be added.

The reason; it helps identify you and put a face to the voice. It increases being personable and is generally a more sociable way of interacting.

So why is it that so many of us think it is okay to leave individual professional profiles blank? Should we even consider the choice to opt out?


Are we generally shy? Did we just never get round to uploading the image? Are we happy to share our names and information but not show our faces? Are we missing the point and maybe don’t see how it might be interpreted?

Would we really hide our face when we go to a meeting?

I can’t talk for others and their choices or reasons for not ‘facing up’. There maybe a few good reasons but generally profiles without a facial image, whether deliberate or not, can give the impression people are leaving something out and there isn’t the full commitment to this network thing. Whatever the reason, I feel this is probably symptomatic that we are not yet consistently digitally/socially/culturally confident to say ‘this is me, I belong on this network, I own my space’.

Perhaps there should be more emphasis encouraging people to open up and share, to support them and in explaining the context of opting in rather than holding back. I’d like to see more people introducing their real person, and others encouraging them and acknowledging when they do.

We have a choice. Let’s opt in.

Call to action

If you read this and are an ‘egg’ or a ‘head and shoulders’ then please consider uploading your image.

If you have the opportunity to encourage someone you know to upload an image or time to show them how to do it then please do.

Be sociable. Share, and help others to opt in.

Phil Jewitt

Image courtesy of rollonfriday.com


About Phil Jewitt

Comms guy and meaning maker, living in that place between personal and professional. Home is Leeds, Yorkshire. I work in communications for Leeds City Council, the 2nd largest council - with a lot to talk about and a lot to listen to. http://philjewitt.wordpress.com http://www.linkedin.com/pub/phil-jewitt/19/853/6b7 http://twitter.com/philjewitt
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25 Responses to Facing up to our facts

  1. Alastair Sutherland says:

    As one of those who has never and will never use facial pics on any platform, I suppose I have a duty to respond!

    I’m not sure how helpful the analogy of covering your face in a meeting is. Cultural exceptions notwithstanding, of course this is unlikely to ever happen. And thus extending your argument seems to say “I’m really sorry but I can’t identify everyone here by sight as I didn’t have time to stalk all the social networks first. How ever did we meet people for the first time in the past? This is impossible madness!!!”

    Facetiousness aside, we roll out our new intranet this year and I’ll be firmly against anything that mandates that avatars have to be face pics. Probably just up to the point of abusing my influence in the project. This is for a couple of reasons.

    Firstly, a face pic tells me what you look like. That’s it. Apart from letting me identify you the first time we meet, it’s actually a rather meaningless piece of data. Oh, except for aiding and abetting the inevitable “have you checked out new Brian from Finance? What a hottie!” conversations.

    Instead an avatar could tell me what your favourite album, or city, or football team is. It could tell me which historical figure you admire, or which film character you most identify with. If we want intranets to be social platforms, what better way to foster connections than to provide additional data to allow people to connect. Like they do on normal social media.

    Secondly if our goal is to get as many people as possible using the intranet, it simply makes no sense to introduce a rule which we know will instantly put some people right off it. I’d rather give people the freedom to have some fun, to be creative and to possibly make random connections which won’t happen with face pics. Like they can on normal social media.

    I’m not arguing against face pics – people can go selfie mad if they like – I’m saying that by making them compulsory we’re actually starting to tell people what their online identity should be. This to me runs contrary to the nature of social media, but is another example of what I see as an unfortunate growing online segregation – between work people talking to work people according to work rules, and normal people talking to normal people according to social media conventions.

    If you accept that people choose non-facial avatars for any number of reasons on ‘normal’ social media, it strikes me as strange that there should be different rules for ‘work’ social media. The normal people were here first, and I’m just wary of attempts to control things, or indeed even having set-in-stone social media ‘rules’ themselves.

    As regards the suggestion that people without facial pics aren’t as invested or connected or as digitally savvy as those with, we’ll definitely have to agree to disagree on that one!

    But maybe that’s just me, I’m an old Usenet hippy 🙂

  2. Phil Jewitt says:

    Thanks for the response Alastair. Good debate. I think you nailed it when you suggest that there are perceived ‘normal’ and ‘work’ platforms. It’d suggest it’s down to how we interpret the personal professional boundaries too and we all may draw that line in a different place. And we may also see different platforms on different sides or straddling that boundary.

    When we rolled out our new intranet we could have promoted it as a social network rather than the new phonebook. In my view it was an opportunity that was missed. It would have both enthused some to have a play and create the random connections you mention but it would also have worried others in that we are creating a monster and people won’t do real work. I think we both agree that the networking aspect and finding people doing similar work or interested in similar things but who we don’t yet know is where it’s at. And I agree that can be done without images.

    I agree that profiles should constantly change to reflect what we are doing and be used creatively, but I do think there is a place where online identity should be more prescriptive. Without getting all big brother, I’m suggesting this is where we need to prove who we are and where some degree of formality is required. I think also in times of increasing moblile working and where employees are not working together as much as they used to that seeing colleagues faces on work related digital communications will help. I can’t prove that, it’s just a hunch as is my personal feeling that a blank photo or an egg is impersonal.

    Some organisations may use the same images from ID badges on their internal systems. Some probably have opt out clauses with valid reasons and images are not included on communications that go external. All fair play. But some may have the option to upload a different photo which might be less formal. Interesting aside that ties appear to be a thing of the past. Great example of changes in the last few years.

    I think the ‘what do I put in my work profile’ question is an interesting one. In my view it should be ‘what I can do to help’ type information. Different stuff from the standard job title and description that is probably that vague it isn’t helpful anyway. So stuff that makes connections.

    In summary, I do believe that an image of a face in some situations should be included.

    • Alastair Sutherland says:

      I completely agree that this stuff is continually evolving, and that’s what I love about it. We have bold, social dreams for our new intranet – how many of those will be borne out by reality remain to be seen! But I do like the fact that we’re coming at it from the “wow, what if… – …that would be cool” angle.

      And you’re absolutely right of course – some roles and online personas really need a human face. I also think there’s a journey here – I’d support people who wanted to test the online water for a while and then eventually say “and this is what I actually look like, I’m not really Kermit after all.”

      As regards the work profile, we do really want to bring in the (searchable) “these are areas I know about & can help with” aspect. But yeah, I’d like to give people the opportunity to go a little ‘off-message’ in there as well.

      I saw a blog post recently that called for intranets to be done away with – but it made no mention of the possibilities they have for connecting people. It saw users of an intranet as staff performing tasks behind a wall, rather than people interacting and collaborating, possibly building solid working relationships and maybe even friendships.

      I don’t want people to be excluded, or even feel excluded. So in the world of social I’ll always reserve a place for the shy and the nervous, the technophobe and the cynic. And if letting them be Kermit for a while helps bring them in, then I’m cool with that 🙂

      I’m sure we probably meet in the middle! 🙂

  3. Fiona says:

    Thanks Phil, it’s a tricky one, In the main it’s great to see someone’s face, makes them real if you like, but if you need to communicate effectively for the sake of a service with someone you don’t really like for whatever reason, a picture of them is sometimes not helpful. Maybe it’s about options, yes I want to see their picture to help engage with them, but sometimes, no, I don’t want to, I prefer to sort something out effectively without seeing their image……. Ta Fiona

    • Phil Jewitt says:

      It is a tricky one, and what we see as our personal information especially our physical representation will no doubt be the trickiest. It’s good to explore and see different opinions. Thanks once again for sharing yours.

  4. johnpopham says:

    I agree with you Phil, that it is really much better to see who you are talking to, and a profile picture is essential for that. I find it interesting, when I am doing social media training and social media surgeries, for instance, the numbers of people who do not have any kind of photo that they would consider using in a professional context, at least not in digital form, in any case. And then there is the issue of those who do all their social networking from a work’s computer which will not allow them to upload anything.

    • Phil Jewitt says:

      I think it has a fair bit to do in trusting that people’s images will be used as intended but also is an indicator of digital confidence. The images on our intranet are not visible in external communications. There are some good reasons for that but in future I think it will become common place for organisations to include them, with conditions to support the existing reasons.They are just our name badge in digital format and most organisations probably have a photo ID badge.

      Internally the majority have images which automatically link from our ID badge database. It would be great if we could get to the position where staff could upload their own images which weren’t the stereotypical mug shot. They could show some personality.

      We have recently come across issues where we could not upload any images (Not ID images) to WordPress blogs. Using images really enhances the stories we were telling. One phonecall to IT, explaining the logical reason why we needed to publish images and on what platform sorted it. I can see why the default position is lock down for many organisations, but this requires challenge to change the default position. Not everyone feels empowered to challenge that position. All part of the cultural change journey.

  5. Henry Smallaxe says:

    And, of course, telephones – and telephone conference calls – are impossible without a photo of the other parties.

  6. Tony Stewart says:

    “Oh it’s so nice to put a face to the name…”

    I’ve heard this so many times during my career it’s crazy. We’re all humans that like to interact with other humans, and in our daily lives, if a face-to-face meet-up isn’t possible (and in this globalised digital world we now live in, this is more often than not the case) then the next best thing is to have a as-human-as-possible profile that represents you on these platforms instead. This goes for Intranets, websites, social media, Enterprise Social Networks… it all comes back to us humans wanting to interact with other humans. So in order to make these interactions the most successful and human, I believe things like profile pictures are really quite essential.

    When speaking to people about profile photos specifically, I find that vanity can often be a big factor in the decision no to have a profile picture. ‘I look awful in pictures’ is probably the number one reason people give when you ask them why they don’t have a profile – which is a real shame as this is never the case of course! And paradoxically when talking about Intranets and internal platforms, these can sometimes be the same guys that have 20+ profile pictures pointing to the outside world on Facebook!

  7. markbraggins says:

    Great post, Phil. I agree. The only caveat I’d add is for people who blog who need to remain anonymous e.g. because they might put themselves or others at risk if they are recognised.

    • Phil Jewitt says:

      Good point Mark, thanks. That suggests a culture where people don’t feel safe to openly air their views. I can see that happens and I know of folk who have done that and it can open up discussion that may not have happened otherwise.

  8. tomsprints says:

    I think I have fewer strong views about face pics than I do about people who don’t put appropriate words in their social media bio. Or they put nonsense. Or they let it get out of date. I’ve tweeted a few times that, rather than New Year resolutions, everyone should refresh their bio. To me, it has far more potential to say who or what I’m communicating with than a photo.

    You’ve begun another good debate, Phil.

  9. Sorry Phil don’t agree. We live in a world that is image obsessed. I know that when people see my face to face or via a picture that I’m being judged on how I look. People will say that looks shouldn’t matter but it does. People who say that they don’t judge people on how they look are lying. It’s human nature to do so. Yes I do put my photo on some of my social media accounts and other not. I know that on those that I don’t, I’m being judge by what I say and not the face that is saying it.

    • Phil Jewitt says:

      Thanks for commenting Peter. People do judge by image, rightly or wrongly it is human nature. I think we do actually agree that images can be useful and required on some and not on other accounts.

  10. Liz says:

    I don’t have a very friendly face – even when I smile I just look a bit manic. That’s just the way my face is. I think this would put people off rather than develop friendly relations.

    We live in a world where people are constantly judging us – I for one am sick of it and avoid any situation where someone could judge me without knowing the real me.

    Also there is the question of discrimination – application forms, for example, are becoming more and more anonymised as people cannot be trusted to make business decisions without letting an element of bias creep in. Perhaps we should be campaigning for no-one to put a photo on their profile so everyone’s opinion is given the same weight?

    • Phil Jewitt says:

      Thanks for sharing this Liz. I think there are situations where anonymization is necessary. I opened this debate not to judge but to get people’s thoughts. Thanks for taking time to respond.

  11. NF says:

    There are a number of perfectly good reasons that people don’t put up pictures.

    The most obvious reason is that some are just not confident about the way they look. It’s not necessarily that one would fear being judged on their looks, but simply that one is not happy about their image. In cases like this encouraging or forcing someone to put an image up which they are not happy with would do more damage than good when it comes to encouraging interaction.

    The opposite could also apply. I know quite a few people who don’t think they get taken seriously in their career because they are viewed as ‘just a pretty face’. People often leave their age out of profiles for the same reason, but a picture would give this away as well.

    Perhaps the most important factor is your comment on owning your space. People forget all to easily that once you post information about yourself online you have to accept that it is no longer private. Recent news has made this abundantly clear, and active persecution by governments of those who oppose this assault on privacy shows that this is not going to stop any time soon. Amongst many other things, when internet fraud and identity theft is at an all time high, when targeted marketing companies make money from your details, when online dating websites scour the net for images to create fake profiles, you can understand peoples hesitation to upload personal information and pictures of themselves. If someone broke into a school and stole photos from the children’s coat pegs they would undoubtedly be arrested. On the other hand the internet is not and never has been a private place.

    Lastly, if you have someone’s name usually it is pretty easy to find their social networking pages. A photo makes it incredibly easy. A quick Google search brings you the options, and the picture confirms the identity. In some cases the content on twitter for instance, which everyone can see with a single click, will be rather different to the content on a professional networking page.

    I think it’s unfair to say that it’s akin to covering your face in a meeting, but since you use that example, if someone came into a meeting wearing a burka, would you accuse them of being impersonal or shy, or would you assume maybe that it was a considered decision? What works for one person does not work for everyone, and pressuring people into doing things your way without first considering that their reasons are most likely as valid as yours is dangerous and foolhardy.

    • Phil Jewitt says:

      Thanks for taking time to respond. I agree that forcing someone to put an image up which they are not happy with would do more damage than good when it comes to encouraging interaction. Perhaps if it is required for identification purposes in a more formal situation then that may be different. In the short /medium term there will still be procedures where facial ID is required for identification – passports for instance, but who knows what will eventually come – iris or fingerprints perhaps?

      The age factor is also a relevant point and your development of the ‘owning your space’ point is totally valid, helpful and could even be a whole discussion in itself. I know of folk who set up various profiles with good intent and never did anything with them and never shut them down. I’m glad you raised this point, thanks. I hope anyone that reads this may consider removing some non used accounts.

      I also see it is easy to link the pieces of our digital jigsaws together. I call this our #lifeleak.

      My purpose in using the ‘would you hide your face in a meeting?’ line was to seek responses to an open discussion. I think that has happened and there are differing views and expanding topics. The point about the burka is well made and to be respected and I ccertainly wouldn’t be accusing.

      I totally agree that what works for one does not necessarily work for others, but I think it depends on what the context is. The essence of the post was to suggest that sometimes we have a choice, sometimes we might not have; and what were our views about that; where do we draw that line?

      Thanks again for sharing your thoughts.

  12. Paul Taylor says:

    What fascinating comments on the post! My quick view – I can’t understand why people would have a problem with a facial pic – unless they are posting on an anonymous basis because of their employers attitude to social media ( I know , and respect , many people who do this.)

    I think the comment from Tom Stewart says it all. Social business is human business and people like to connect with people. For most of us that means a visual ID.

    Some people may have issues about the way they think they look and I respect this of course (to be honest I reckon in my work profile picture I’m 10 years younger and 2 stone lighter!)

    However you wouldn’t go for a job interview with a bag over your head so I don’t see why it’s different online.

    In general though the first rule of social has to be: “don’t be an egg”.

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  14. marktravisinfo says:

    Paul Taylor says it all for me.
    I like to deal with people and a genuine photo, to me, contributes to building a relationship.
    I chose mine as, despite seeming from the side… which is enough for anyone, it always reminds me of a really happy period in life. I was lucky enough to be at the top of the Empire State Building looking across New York.
    A couple of people I chat with wholly on social media had asked me where I was. I guess telling them has added to how I’m perceived by them and helped build up the contact.
    If you don’t want to use a picture of yourself that’s no big issue but why not replace the egg pic with something that makes you feel happy, represents what you say, etc?
    That way others can still get a handle on who you are.

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