On the episode of The Office where Dwight was in Second Life and his avatar looked EXACTLY like him

I changed my identity this week. Like some Cold War secret service agent, I was able to slip off my old face and replace it with a new one. On Twitter I went from:

to:

I made the change because I am taking part in the prostate cancer fundraiser Movember, and thought that people who have donated to support me should see exactly what it was they got for their money.

Well, the change prompted one of the most enjoyable and interesting days I have had on Twitter. I was at work, laughing out loud in the office at the banter going back and forth, triggered by my sudden moustached resemblance to a circa 1977 Burt Reynolds.

But mixed in with all the frivolity was something else. First, people who I had never connected one on one on Twitter with were sending me messages, and engaging in conversation. It sparked this blog post (and another one from Helen Keegan as we are sharing our thoughts on this subject as a bit of a blog-off), and a deeper realization of just how important these little symbols of us are and what messages they send about us to others in our network.

Lately I have struggled with how to represent myself online. Little Clint has been my primary online avatar for years. It has become my calling card. It’s my gravatar when I post comments on blogs and leave my mark around the net. It’s how I have always identified myself on Twitter, and was my default Facebook avatar for years. The little guy has become my online stake in virtual ground; something of a marker for others in my network, which is part of the reason why I struggle with changing it. As Helen said in her tweet,

it’s difficult coz consistency (icon) easily tied to ID/reputation, yet in reality ID can be so fluid…

For all intents and purposes, Little Clint (in all his 8 year old retro hipster cuteness)  is me. When someone in my network comes across something on the web that I have already left my mark on, it is a signal to them that someone else from their network – someone they presumably trust – has been there.

Case in point, last week I visited the site Academia.edu for the first time. Had never been there, somehow stumbled across it from some link somewhere. What was the first thing I saw on the page? Well, because I was logged into Facebook, and because Academia.edu is integrated with Facebook Connect, I was greeted by the smiling avatars of two people from my FB network – two people in my circle of trust who I recognized immediately. Now, this doesn’t mean I see their images on this website as a personal endorsement, but it was certainly enough for me to determine that this site was something I might want to dig into a bit.

As more and more services become integrated with the Internet Holy Trinity (Twitter, Facebook and Google), a simple change in avatar on one social network service can have ripple effects far down the line.

Over time, we all change. Our physical appearance, the way we think about things, who we are is constantly in motion, sometimes from day to day. So why shouldn’t our avatars change to reflect who we are at that moment in time? Why shouldn’t we be able to use whatever symbol or photo or image to represent us? But when we are in an environment where trust and reputation are hard to establish, do we run the risk of weakening those signals of trust to our network by undertaking the simple act of changing our avatar?

I do love Lil Clint, but I don’t know if he really represents who I am. This is especially noticeable when I go to a conference where I am going to meet people in my network f2f for the first time.  I often think I should buy a bunch of t-shirts with that avatar plastered on it, and wear it on the first day of a conference just so people can attach that image to me.  Like the importance of using your own name on social networks, I am beginning to think it is time to retire Little Clint.

But I wonder what I might lose by suddenly abandoning him and replacing him with a more generic photo of myself. Little Clint is pretty distinctive. Big Clint is just another face in the crowd. It’s not those that I have strong ties with in my network that I think about. They’ll catch it. But will those who I have weak ties with even recognize that I am the same person? Will they connect the two? Will they even care?

Maybe I worry too much. After all, changing my avatar this week did result in some great new connections and a couple of gut-busting howls. But I wonder how many people in my various connected networks are now wondering who this new face is, and is it someone they can trust?

The title, in case you are wondering, comes from the American version of The Office and is in reference to this scene. Maybe Dwight was right?