10 Ways To Look At Your Twitter Avatar

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iStockphoto / Kemalbas

It’s Worth A Thousand Tweets

The picture in question was sent to me by a publicity officer. She works at a major publishing house. She is a person in that company who is supposed to know exactly how to offer photos to the press.

It was a shot of herself — the story carried smart, clever quotes from her and several other publicists.

And when the picture arrived, the file name was?

me.jpg

That’s it.

  • Not her name.
  • Not her publishing house’s name.
  • No contact info, either.
  • Just “me.jpg” Exactly as she had probably stored it on her computer desktop, yeah? Where “me.jpg” might make perfect sense, sure.

As soon as that thing landed in some basket on a journalist’s computer, how was it to be filed in a headshots catalog for future use? How did the publicity officer in the photo expect members of the media to spell her name correctly? Never mind that the shot was grainy, obviously something chopped from a larger image (“cropped” is too kind a term); clearly not a professionally lit photo. #cmonson

Here’s a tip: File your self-images with your name. Even a credit if you like:

YourFirstName.YourLastName.Photocredit.SoAndSo.jpg

Then when you have to send it somewhere quickly, it’s good to go.

Being ready and professionally put-together is part of being on — on top of your game and the way you mean to play it. And when I wrote a recent “Provocations in Publishing” piece at Writer Unboxed, I found that many of the writers who contacted me privately later were distressed to think they need to place as much emphasis on “the look” as I was recommending.

By “the look,” most of them were referring to a wider package than just their face shots — authors’ “looks” need to encompass their platforms, their overall evocations of themselves for the world, who they are, what they write. Their “looks” engage not only their headshots but also their blog posts, commentary, biographies, social medium choices, and, of course, their books.

But even when we think of how you “look” to the world as a bigger package than just your avatar on Twitter, we have to remember that — just as IRL, in real life — your mug is your first message. I was about to ask the spirit of Marshall McLuhan to forgive me, then I realized he’d likely be right on board here: If the medium is the message, your first medium is your headshot, your visage, the face you turn to the world that you want to influence and access.

Here are 10 things to think about in terms of the importance that even professional publicists like Ms. Me.jpg are missing these days in a world that expects you to brand yourself. That image of the guy on the Quaker Oats box is taken and so is Aunt Jemima’s smile. So you’re going to have to work with what you’ve got. And the sooner you get on top of this, the better you’ll do with your “presentation of self in everyday life,” Erving Goffman.

(1) Where Are You Seen By The Most People?

If you’re headed out for the day, you check your hair, right? What you’re wearing? Maybe your makeup? (It’s okay, guys, no one is recording your answers here, you can say yes to that one, too.)

And how many people will see you in person? Twenty? Fewer? More? Going to the office? So maybe fifteen? Going to the US Open? Maybe hundreds. Get yourself on the big screen in Arthur Ashe Stadium during the right match — major eyeballs.

But how about online? How many followers do you have? How many followers do they have? My SocialBro account tells me that as I write this, the active users who follow me have a total of 23.1 million followers. Depending on how much of a dude-about-town you are, you may be seen by more people through Twitter alone on a single day than in physical reality in a month, even in a year. Do you look the right way for what you want the much wider world of the Web to know about you?

(2) Pay For It

Unless you live in a Magnum Photos artist’s family, chances are your brother-in-law is just not the photographer he thinks he is. Lucky breaks? Sure, sometimes somebody gets someone else into some light and some locale and some situation that produces something you might be able to use.

But it’s probably not as costly as you think it’s going to be to get an hour in the nearby studio of a local professional photographer who has the right equipment and knows what she or he is doing. One of the reasons this costs less these days is, of course, that you need no prints. You want the finished product emailed to you. Done and done.

Most good photogs will know exactly what you want when you tell them you’re looking for a “professional headshot.” They’ll ask what you do. This is a moment to be honest. Because “fashion show runway choreographer” will get you a really different-looking shot than “paralegal.”

Shop around for a good price. You’ll be able to use the image you get for a year or two. Try going in with a couple of friends, see if the photographer will give you a discount for not having to re-set the studio for each of you.

Why is it worth paying for? Because this is where most people who know of you at all will see you. And keep seeing you. And keep seeing you. Drunk or sober, happy or sad, at your desk or jogging and tweeting while about to drop your Samsung into a pothole, this is how you’re going to look.

(3) Let Me Turn This Around For You

We’re the ones who have to look at your photo. Fork over something for it, will you? Not a free pizza for your husband. Leave him and his smartphone camera out of this. A real photographer. We’ll thank you for this.

(4) Avatar: “An Incarnation Or Embodiment In Human Form”

That’s what it means. Did you know that?

Merriam-Webster lists “an electronic image” as the fourth meaning of the term. The word avatar is rooted in sanskrit, “avatāra — descent, from avatarati he descends,” to quote M-W. We’re not talking downhill-all-the-way kinds of descent, either. We’re getting into spirit-with-us, even something akin to what George Bernard Shaw called creative evolution. The general sense of this beautiful word, avatar, is of a deity-made-flesh, one who now dwells among us and blesses us with his or her presence.

That would be you.

When you chat with this photographer I’m insisting you hire, you don’t have to go off on them about the glorious incarnations of Vishnu. But tell them you want something that (ready?) “shows them who I am.”

That’s all you have to say to a good photographer. He or she will now be sitting right up and focusing on you with more than a lens. All you need to trigger in a professional shutterbug is curiosity. You’re now home free. That picture will be worth every penny. And the next questions you hear from your photographer will be smart. Answer them well and truthfully. And place yourself into your photog’s hands. Give yourself over. As with a good masseuse, only you have more clothes on. Which brings me to:

(5) Your Face

  • Not three quarters of your body.
  • Not your Halloween costume four years ago.
  • Not the Himalayas that looked so swell on you that day on vacation.
  • Not your Best Whomever Forever.
  • Not your cat. Especially not your cat.
  • Dog either.
  • Not your children. Mothers, pay attention: Do not hide behind those tykes. It’s your face we want.
  • Not your car. Not your lunch. Not your basketball.
  • Not your logo. Not your favorite band’s logo. Not your favorite actor.
  • Not your album or book cover, for God’s sake. Almost as bad as your cat. And why? I’m glad you asked me that.

(6) Why Do You Think They Call These Media Social?

Have you ever walked into a cocktail party and shaken hands with a book? If you have, you were drunk before you got there. And that’s why your Twitter handle shouldn’t look like your book. It should look like you.

These media (a plural word — one medium, two media) are called “social” because they are precisely meant to be people — I said people — talking to other people. Not objects talking to people, nor people talking to objects, nor objects talking to each other.

Do not masquerade as an object. Be people — as many as your current state of mind requires — but not an object.

(7) Your Face: Even Closer

Back to the face-ness of it all, crop it down.

Better yet, have that not-so-expensive-after-all photographer crop it for you. Yes, even that is better done by a pro.

We don’t need background, no matter how edifying you found that sunset beach or how funny you think it was that those goats were doing that unfortunate thing behind you at the time…get us in close. We want to see the whites of your you-know-whats.

(8) The Eyes Have It

Tell us something. Think while the shot is being taken, don’t zone out. Think of anything you like, and please don’t tell us what it was, you can even make a wish on it for all I care, but think and think with your eyes.

In the tweeterie, your face becomes your brand. A good enough shot can be spotted by a regular tweeteur on the screen from across the room. over time, the shadings and contours and colors become that familiar, that iconic to us. And that’s good. Your avatar becomes a trademark of sorts for you. Nike’s swoosh? Your face.

But whenever your interlocutors (try fitting that into a tweet) land on your image, it’s your eyes they seek out. This is human nature. It’s not mushy and need not be sexual, even in our sexualize-everything-that-moves society. But it is connection.

And everything about your presence in and on a social medium is about connecting to others in one way or another.

  • A wide-brimmed, summery hat? I love those things when I see them worn on Corfu. But I can’t see your eyes if you wear one in your Twitter avatar.
  • Dark and shadowy half-a-face stuff? I’m all for it when you star in that Hitchcock remake. But I can’t see your eyes without some light in your Twitter avatar.
  • Snazzy, life-of-the-party back-of-your-head shot because you’re always on your way out the door, ha-ha? Okay, your friends love yelling “don’t let it hit you!” when you leave, but you’d be amazed how flat most humor falls on Twitter, especially when you’re being viewed by strangers. We had to be there to be there. And we weren’t there. Turn around and show us your eyes.

(9) Your Bio: Information, Information, Information

If you, like Delta Air Lines (yes, three words and they are my carrier), want to “keep climbing,” then come and sit by me. But don’t make me have to guess which Gladys you are on Twitter.

Your bio is the index to your face in your avatar. When the power tweeteurs come to find you, they know what? They know a book title. Or maybe they only know the word “author” about you. Or journalist. Or doctor. Or lawn-care magnate. Your bio needs to log in that info. So they land on the right “you.” Not the other woman with your name. Or the other guy who also does a lot of dancing. (He’s the one at the barre in fifth position, you got the jazzier end of this stick — we need to know which you are.)

Keywords. When someone looks for you, what keywords will they use? Get those keywords into your bio.

Think it through: Someone looking for you on Twitter pulls up your name. It comes up with 15 others who have that name. If the person searching doesn’t know your unforgettable face yet, he or she can’t recognize you that way. They need keywords, really useful ones.

If you had to search for yourself, what keywords would you throw in? Seriously. Try it.

“Proud father of four,” grand thing that it is (congratulations), may not be the first way someone thinks to look for you, right? And as much as you’d like to get off that insane laugh-line that shows how clever you are, resist it, funny girl: use the 140 characters of your bio to hit the kind of keywords people will be using to find you.

No matter how well you’ve got that avatar working for you, if they can’t find it, they can’t find it. And finding it depends on the words under it in your bio.

(10) Name That Face

Lastly we come to what you call yourself out there in the wild blue bird’s yonder.

Remember how much we want to see your face, not your book cover and not your new wheels? Same for your name.

  • Not your latest retail start-up brainstorm that’s going to make you a fortune.
  • Not your murder-mystery series detective whom everybody likes so much.
  • Not your childhood neighborhood that got blown away in the storm.
  • Not your cat’s name. Not your cat’s name. Not your cat’s name.

Get as close to your name — your name, your name — as you can. If it’s taken, try first for an underline between your first and last name; that’s probably the most common second choice. Next try your first initial and your last name…logical possibilities, not flights of fancy. Try to avoid a Twitter handle that starts or ends with an underline, those are just weird and very hard to remember.

Err on the side of what’s memorable. You want to be as close to your real name as possible in the most memorable form possible.


When a Twitter avatar works, it feels as if you’re meeting a completely natural extension of a colleague’s or friend’s personality. If anything about your avatar seems jarring, it can skew your Twitter presence. If you’re a surgeon and your entire Twitter page is about that one time you went skydiving?…there’s a big “huh” on the other end of your connection. (Your patients are also wondering if you’re going to be around to take the stitches out.)

Don’t fabricate yourself for your Twitter presence. Be yourself. And be yourself well.

Because it’s your face that’s about to launch your next thousand tweets. TC mark

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