The more you think about Web head shots, the more loaded a social artifact they become. Scholars have begun to examine "impression management" online. One study posits that people with attractive friends on their Facebook "wall" benefit from a halo effect and are themselves perceived to be more attractive. Researchers have also done interesting things with yearbook photos (the original Web head shot). This study found that whether a woman smiles in her photo (PDF) can predict "favorable outcomes in marriage and personal well-being up to 30 years later." Sort of cool to know, but how does it apply to me? (And could it possibly be true?)
Naturally, the Internet has taken photo research into its own narcissistic hands with a creepy/fascinating site called Facestat. It's an inspired update of the venerable Hot or Not, and approaches its mission—to get people to rate photos—from a quasi-scientific angle:
Upload a photo, and choose some questions such as "How old do you think I am?" or "Do I seem trustworthy?" Within a couple hours, you will have detailed statistics about how people feel about the picture you provide. It's like market research for the individual. And it's free!
It's market research for the individual! Not some shallow exercise for the insecure!
The site's most addictive feature is its request that face-judgers use a single word to describe each photo. This leads to all sorts of creativity and randomness. My own photo was tagged with the following adjectives: "ewwwww," "sailor," "bored," "BritishCute" (I assume that's a good thing), "insane," "boring," "lol," "forehead," "Gentleman," "contrasting," and "LeeHarveyOswald!!!!!!" The crowd did display some wisdom by guessing my age and political orientation correctly.
To date, Facestat has collected 16,818,344 judgments on 126,090 faces. The people behind the site, a group of programmers called Dolores Labs, have played with the data in fun ways. They noted which pairs of tags tend to appear together—athletic and driven, gay and cowboy, old and sour, young and uninterested. They've also built a graphical explorer, with which you can follow the webs of adjectives for an entire afternoon. The promise of accurate "market research" hasn't been totally fulfilled. Looking around the site, I've found the crowd-sourced judgments to be fickle. For every person who thinks you're "not bad," there's another that thinks you're phony—or worse.
So it seems that you, Internet person, are left with two options: Just pick a photo and go for it, or go the arty/ironic route. It's not as if you can stay hidden forever. Eventually someone will upload you to Flickr or tag you in a wedding pic wearing an unflattering, unchosen color. My own half-solution: I took a photo and ran it through something called the Face Transformer that created a manga version of myself. It's me, but it's not really me. That's kind of how it feels to be online.