Charlotte Observer: What your Facebook photo says about you

Article reprinted from the Charlotte Observer
July 30, 2009

Jeff Elder
Social Media Columnist

Let’s sign into Facebook, and take a look at some Charlotteans today.

Hold it, this isn’t a lineup of similar head-shot photos. This looks like the bar scene in “Star Wars.”

There’s Lydia Stern, owner of the Beadlush Shop in Charlotte. But instead of a picture, her profile shows a cartoon drawn of her as a superhero. And Becca Schultz-Burger of Charlotte is pictured getting licked right in the kisser by her dog. And Jeff Hartlage, an alum of UNC Charlotte, doesn’t even appear in his Facebook profile pic – it shows the 49ers football helmet.

It turns out there’s way more to a Facebook profile photo than, say, a driver’s license or work ID photo. In a whole new way, Facebook has given us a chance at self-expression – some would say personal branding. The chance to present ourselves as we would like to be seen.

“Yes, we play ‘dress-up’ with the avatars we choose, profile photos of ourselves we upload, and the way we fill out our Facebook profiles,” says Howard Rheingold, a pioneer of social media who helped start the medium in the ’80s and now teaches at Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley. Rheingold’s Facebook photo shows him in front of a leaflet-splattered city wall.

Rheingold points out that we present some things about ourselves consciously, but that we also send out other messages. Choose a picture with your kids? You’re obviously telling the world you love them. But you might also be surreptitiously telling your high school friends that you’ve achieved domestic bliss.

Our choice of a photo reveals our values, says John McArthur, a Queens University of Charlotte assistant professor of communications, and another expert on social media. “The photo represents whatever that person is currently measuring success as,” McArthur says. So the ambitious choose a professional head shot, and young people choose a concert photo.

The blog All Facebook (not affiliated with the company) recently did a rundown of what it termed the 30 Standard Facebook Profile Photo Styles. Among them: posing with your kids, pets, or in front of a landmark. (One clunker: “Self-portrait in a Mirror Shot.” Not exactly a Spielberg effect.)

On my blog, I asked people for their thoughts on Facebook pics, and got swarmed. You can add your comments at http://atcharlotte.blogspot.com.

Why did Stern choose her superhero cartoon? “I want to get it all done and save the planet.”

Hartlage chose a photo of his alma mater’s football helmet to support the cause of bringing football to UNCC, “to keep 49er Football in front of as many people as possible.”

Becca Schultz-Burger of Charlotte says of her pic with her dog, “Who doesn’t like a black Lab kissing them on the lips with the sunset in the background?”

Charlotte author Aleigh Acerni chose her photo to undo some accidental negative branding by well-meaning friends. “No matter what hideous photos my evil friends post to Facebook and tag me with, here is proof that I am not, in fact, hideous. Most days.”

Acerni adds a pet peeve: “I don’t like it when people use their kid’s (or pet’s) picture as their picture. It’s … not them. And when you’re trying to figure out if you know someone and want to accept their friend request, a pic of their kid is no help whatsoever.”

That brings us to Jocelyn Biggs, whose photo shows her in a pink T-shirt, smiling on a New Orleans street on a recent vacation. Real, casual, personal, no gimmicks. Some experts say this may be the closest to your “real” self. “It shows the true Jocelyn,” says Biggs, co-owner of Charlotte event-planning company Pinkies Up.

In the end, there’s no right or wrong. There’s just us. But which us we choose to be is an interesting aspect of social media.

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