Monday, October 31, 2011

Strange creatures and virtual costumes

A Facebook profile picture is a strange creature. As the image most closely associated with your online persona it operates a bit like a brand or logo. But unlike a logo, a profile picture needn't bring the person to mind. It can be completely disassociated.

Some Facebookers show their kids or spouse. Sometimes it's an abstract scene. Many photographers throw up a disguise. Until recently my profile photo showed hands playing piano on an old TV. Some folks have kept the same picture for years. Others change their photo every day. There's no hard and fast rule. Unlike the scrapbooks of old, the virtual album is a malleable experiment.

After my cousin died recently I noticed that many of his parents' Facebook friends began changing their profile picture to Colby's. It seemed like an easy way to pay my respects so I did it too. There was no mass alert. Everyone did it on their own.

I'm not sure if this is a common form of homage. It's the first time I've participated in such a thing. If others have done something similar I'd be curious to hear about it since it seems like a very contemporary form of memorial.

Most people viewing my Facebook page probably have no idea who's in the photo. They might assume it's one of my kids or me as a child. For the minority who recognize Colby the photo has a very different meaning.

I find this dichotomy —a simple photo's ability to radically shift depending on what the viewer brings to it— appealing. If I can pay homage and toy with ambiguity at the same time, count me in.

I'll leave the photo up for a few weeks or maybe longer. We'll see. For now it's my online Halloween mask. Today and for the foreseeable future I'm dressed as a small angelman.


colin pantall said...

That's so sad - my condolences Blake.

I think it is quite a common form of homage - people identifying with the loss. After the shootings in Norway people put Norwegian flags up as their facebook profile.

It also ties in with the opposite, when people don't identify with something, like when they break up with somebody and their profile pictures are changed, their status changed and whole albums deleted.

Blake Andrews said...

I remember seeing a few Apple logos on Facebook after Steven Jobs died. Perhaps this is a new way to track cultural currents, via profile picture counts.