I recently updated the portrait I use on my blog, website, and social networking sites, including Facebook and Twitter. I also send the image to conference organizers who use it to represent me on sites and in programs where I give talks. It had been about 6 years since I last had a portrait shot and besides getting older (sigh), I wanted a new look. My previous photo was more casual than the one I am running with now.
Updating my photo got me to thinking about how essential the choice of image is in social media circles. It's amazing how much you can discern about people simply by glancing at the image they choose to represent their online persona. The photo you choose to represent you says a great deal about who you are.
There are many choices when it comes to an image to use. Many people use a casual shot taken by a friend, which can be a great option. But there are numerous different approaches, and each says something important about you. Are you in a casual setting (like on a beach) or a more formal setting (like an office)? What are you wearing? Are you standing or sitting?
You can have other people and things with you in the photo. A shot of your child and/or boyfriend is an option. I've seen people whose photos include a random famous person with them. For example, I have a photo of me together with Dr. Ruth taken at a book signing at Book Expo America. Wiley published our books, and she signed just before me in the Wiley booth. While I love that photo, it's not what I want to represent me online. Still other people have props in their shot such as their dog, a fishing pole, or a beer in their hand. Each says something very particular about that person.
I chose to use a formal portrait shot by my friend Jay Blakesberg, who photographs rock stars for album covers and magazines such as Rolling Stone. A few days before my session, he shot Carlos Santana. Hey, if I can't be a real rock star, at least I can be photographed like one! But if you go with the formal portrait, the choice of style and clothing says a lot about who you are. Close up or wide shot? (Wide shots are difficult to see in the postage stamp size on sites such as Twitter.) Smile or no smile? How close do you crop? For men: tie or no tie? Jacket?
Another option is to use an avatar such as a graphic representation of themselves a la Second Life or a cartoon image. This approach is certainly appropriate for some people.
However, there are some options that in my opinion don't work for representing professionals in social media. In general, I'd suggest that any shot that makes it seem like you are hiding should be avoided. Your cat may be lovely, but if you blog and tweet at work, you shouldn't use your cat as your image. Don't even get me started on those who use cartoon characters such as Bart Simpson or an object such as a surfboard. You're certainly impacting what you want people to think of you if you go this route.
It is possible to default to the placeholder that sites like Twitter (a graphical bird) and Facebook (a silhouette) provide. This says, "I'm too busy to use a photo" or "I'd prefer to remain anonymous."
However, without doubt, I'd say the worst choice of all is the increasing use of corporate logos to represent people on social networking sites. In recent months, many people have wanted to friend me on Facebook with a company logo as their photo. I say no to these requests. I'm fine with using Facebook for business purposes. We all have personal lives, family lives, and professional lives, and these are appropriate ways to use Facebook. But if you're tempted to use your logo as your Facebook image, I'd suggest that you rethink this.
If you want to promote your business on a social networking site, create a personal profile with a photo of you. Then create a page for your business (where you can use a logo). For example, on Facebook, a personal profile should have a photo, while Facebook pages is the way that brands (with logos) should engage.
As our work lives and personal lives merge because of social media, the choice of how we represent ourselves becomes more important. Pay attention to your image.