AI: The Arrogance of Avatars.

An online avatar says a great deal about a person. Avatars are an image, chosen by their owner, to represent them in the online world. They are a carefully selected portrait which broadcasts certain traits of the subject while concealing others.

How did you choose your MAL avatar? What does it say about you? Do you use different Avatars elsewhere? What do the MAL Contributors avatars say about us? Are we artists? Scientists? Sceptics? Narcissistic twits?

MALvatars in image: Brian G, Reuschelles, Amy, Smashley, Ryan, Raven, Steve D, Maki, Iszi.


Ryan is a professional nerd, teaching engineering in the frozen north. Somewhat less professionally, he is a costumer, author, blacksmith, juggler, gamer, serial enthusiast, and supporter of the Oxford comma. He can be found on twitter and instagram @studentofwhim. If you like what I do here, feel free to leave a tip in my tipjar.

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  1. I use Dürer’s Young Hare everywhere, because I like it as art & for the hare symbolism of alertness & speed. Being consistent helps my online contacts recognize me no matter where they encounter me. (@dELYSEious did complain that I looked nothing like my avatar, though…) I’m tempted to use my alter ego art: http://www.the50vs50.com/2011/04/dark-roast/ . But I think it would put people off a bit, I know it does me.

    — wdonohue / aka Drinks / aka Brian —

  2. Funny, when MAL first started up, I wrote this facetious reply in the first introduction email thread:

    “My avatars are always self portraits, to deflect from my self-image insecurities and allow control over how others view me. You see, when you laugh at my avatars, it’s because I want you to, not because it’s funny. BAM. I’m done for the week.”

    I was kidding of course. But was I really? I was kidding in the way that you do when you want to tell the truth, but not let anybody realize it. Avatars are a control method. Even when you use a photograph, you certainly don’t pick the one where you half blinked while high on glue.

    I have about as many avatars as I have services that use them. As such, I tend to pick my avatars based on the tone of the site. I would never use this one for sites where I want to keep a more serious tone or use one of myself where I don’t want represent only myself (my twitter uses the upside-down “e” (or schwa) of my webcomic because the account represents the website more than just myself.

  3. I use this avatar because I prefer to be represented by my words.

  4. I don’t usually use an avatar on sites where i just coment. (Too much effort to set up.) However in the past I have used avatars on forums I have been active on. I tend to use either just a photo of myself or a piece of my art.

    but as you say, these are not mindlessly chosen. When I use my artwork for an avatar I am doing it to show it off, get feedback (better be positive!!!). When I choose a photo it tends to be a flattering one where I am well dressed.

  5. My avatar is little more than anonymity. What do I look like? Am I male or female or transsexual? Am I even human?

    You may never know.

  6. I have always used my artwork as my avatar. Most often it was a variation of a drawing I had done of a hand and that stayed for several years (all of my commenting on Skepchick, Bad Astronomy, etc. used a hand picture under my old screen name Skept-artist).
    When I was asked to join Mad Art Lab, I wanted to use a portrait, just like they have on Skepchick. It had been years and years since I had drawn a self-portrait and I knew that it would be better than any I had made in the past (this is where the ‘showing off’ that @dpeabody mentions comes into play for me).
    What does it say about me? Well, it’s a realistic portrait so I don’t care if folks see what I really look like. Also, it says ‘Hey! I know how to draw! Give me money and I’ll draw some crap for you’, and so on.
    I suppose that puts me in the “Narcissistic twit” category 😀

  7. I needed something quick so I took a photo of me, monochromized it (that’s probably not a real word, is it) and then altered to gray levels so it didn’t look too harsh.

  8. Mine definitely falls in the narcissistic twit arena. It was a photo taken by a friend, I liked it, needed something to fit in with all the other self portraits, so I used it as my avatar. Other locales I have a rotation of shots from friends, pics from my childhood, slogans (this is what a feminist looks like, skeptical not cynical, etc…) and cheesecake photos, and change them fairly often.

  9. My avatar has never worked here or at Skepchick. No idea why, and I’m not concerned enough to figure it out. Too bad, too, because my avatar is so awesome all your minds would be blown and all your cherished beliefs would be shattered. And, um, other radical stuff.

  10. Oh, right. The South Park-me. I use that across the skepchick sphere because it’s neat. It somewhat resembles me and …

    I use other avatars elsewhere. Like balls of yarn. Don’t really know what either says about me.

  11. “…my avatar is so awesome all your minds would be blown and all your cherished beliefs would be shattered.”

    Please, Matt. You say that about everything.

    Not to say it isn’t true though. Folks, If you’ve never had your cherished beliefs shattered by a well mixed drink or a barroom napkin doodle, you should give him a ring.

  12. For Scopes: If you link up the email you are using here and your email on gravatar, your avatar should work.

    As for my avatar, I still have this one which was drawn by one of the old Skepchicks writers (Jill) back when we all had cartoons. I have a photo of me on other social sites.

    Not sure what that says about me. Perhaps I am a conformist or secretly wish I was a cartoon. Okay, no secret. I wish I was a cartoon.

  13. A trend I noticed: all of our photographic avatars are from poets and musicians. The borderline case is our Web-comicer that makes Photoshopped comics. He has a Photoshopped image

    I took a long time to pick mine for this site. I typically use a dragon skull, but that seemed too impersonal. We at MAL are all proud of our work and are trying to foster a community so I didn’t want to hide who I am on this site.

    However, I also wanted to convey my artistic bent and I am NOT a photographer. So I went with a sketchy self portrait. I don’t have the realism and detail that Brian G has but it shows who I am well enough while remaining artsy.

  14. Lets see if the above worked…. If it did, it should show the painting I am currently working on. If not, Oh Well!

  15. Hey I think it may have worked. My picture was set on rated R before. Ill update the pic again when I finish the painting. Right now it is just coming out of the ugly phase (you know, the one when you contemplate burning down your whole studio area?)

  16. This is a very appropriately timed AI as I am currently still trying to decide on an avatar for MAL! I have a few in mind but can’t decide on photo vs. drawing/painting.

  17. I too have never been able to figure out where or how to set an avatar for Skepchick or MAL. I have asked for assistance before but recieved no reply. Anyone?

  18. Go to gravatar and set up an account using the same email that you use to log into your mad art lab comment account.

    Upload a picture…Make sure you select G rating and magically you now have an avatar.

    Some sort of voodoo magic if you ask me!

  19. The gravatar system does indeed work on voodoo magic. It’s pretty reliable and user friendly for the most part but getting tech support requires a blood sacrifice.

    So yeah, remember your password or be prepared to kidnap your neighbor’s cat.

  20. I’m really late to this party, but I drew my current avatar when i started using twitter more frequently. On most social sites I tend to go with pictures of myself, but when I’m being presented to the general population i feel more comfortable having a cartoony version of myself to deflect the weirdos who like to make assumptions about me based on photos.
    I feel like this avatar pretty much sums up my online presence, complete with giant mug of coffee and skeptical expression.

  21. My (lack of) avatar says that I am a lazy perfectionist. And a procrastinator. I want make a self portrait avatar, but I haven’t gotten around to it. I don’t want to use just any old thing in the meantime, because of the laziness.

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