How to select the right profile picture

Let’s face it, your profile picture says a lot about you. As soon as someone lands on your Facebook page or your Twitter account, they see a snapshot of how you see yourself. And it is not a pretty picture.

It turns out that we are particularly poor at selecting the best image for our profiles.

Profile pictures

Take a look at any social network, and you see a vast array of different images. Some are professional, some look like police mugshots, and some are clearly cropped from amateur snaps. Others show the person doing their favourite activity, such as snowboarding or surfing, so you cannot actually see them; they are just a blip.

Yet the human face – particularly the eyes and the mouth – are what we are most interested in looking at. Eye tracking studies show that when we look at a photo, we spend the vast majority of our time looking at the eyes of the people in the image. When you watch TV, it’s the eyes of the characters or newsreaders that you look at the most. Even in the real world, when you are in meetings, it is eyes that get the most attention.

So, one thing is for sure, if your profile picture is to work and people will want to connect with you, then the image needs to show your eyes clearly. No more “on the surfboard” images – but close-ups of your face. That’s what people want.

However, a new study from the University of New South Wales shows that you shouldn’t choose the picture yourself, even if it is a professionally taken close-up showing your eyes off brilliantly.

The research revealed that the pictures we think are the best images of ourselves are not what other people think. The study also found that what individuals thought was the worst picture of themselves was not what other people thought either. In other words, we are pretty dumb in choosing good or bad photos of ourselves.

The reason for this is context. The study asked people to rate images according to different kinds of online situations – such as for a professional network or a dating site. The study found that other people are better at gauging what image of an individual works best in a particular context. You might think that picture of you smiling looks great and makes you attractive, but other people know better as to what would work best for you on a dating site, for instance.

So, what does this mean for your social networking activity?

Firstly, it tells us that one image is not right. You need different pictures of yourself for particular online contexts – one image for LinkedIn and another for Facebook, for instance. This goes against the grain of much online advice which suggests you should have one photo that is consistent across the web. It seems that internet users disagree and want different kinds of profile pictures dependent upon context.

The second thing to discover from this study is to give the choice of images over to someone else. Instead of choosing your own image to use in your profiles, get other people on that network to tell you which one works best. You might not agree, but you’re not the one who has to look at the photos. Hence, go with their suggestions and use the profile images selected for you.

Doing so will connect you more easily with more people online. Of course, if you don’t want people to engage with you, then carry on with that grainy, image of you with that palm tree in the foreground and you, lazing underneath it as some kind of blob. That’s bound to put people off…!

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