Lately, the Internet has been trying—politely—to find out what I look like. Gmail suggested that I upload a photo "that everyone will see when you email them." My new Apple computer asked whether it could take a webcam shot for iChat. And Facebook was so annoyed with my question mark icon (where a photo would normally be) that it found a photo of me that someone else had tagged, surrounded my head with a red square, and asked whether it might make a good profile picture. The text-y era of the nobody-knows-you're-a-dog Internet is ending. You either have a head shot or you're invisible.
How to solve this modern problem? At times like this, it's best to turn to the wisdom of British journalists. This article in the Guardian classifies head shots into nine groups, such as the hand job, the gormless grin, I'm a star too, prop or gimmick, and making friends. I found the hand job—"A hand framing or supporting face is easily the most popular pose," says the Guardian—of particular interest, because, after grimacing in front of my web cam for a half-hour (and feeling like a high-school sophomore), that's the solution I came up with. Here's the Guardian's take: "Pro: Versatile, conveys quizzical image. Con: Can look camp or arch."
Remember for a moment how much attention people used to lavish on the perfect quote for their e-mail signature. Now that self-conscious energy is applied to a photo. There's nothing inherently bad about the rise of Web head shots. They just turn what was once a space for burgeoning Cyrano de Begeracs into a space for burgeoning Brad Pitts. Read the stark conclusion of a 2000 meta-analysis of beauty studies that tried, in a careful way, to discover whether beauty really was in the eye of the beholder:
The effects of facial attractiveness are robust and pandemic, extending beyond initial impressions of strangers to actual interactions with those whom people know and observe. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, there is strong agreement both within and across cultures about who is and who is not attractive. Furthermore, attractiveness is a significant advantage for both children and adults in almost every domain of judgement, treatment, and behavior we examined.
In other words, this analysis confirms the elegant Montaigne observation that it quotes: "[Beauty] holds the first place in human relations; it presents itself before the rest, seduces and prepossesses our judgement with great authority and wondrous impression."
Montaigne didn't live to see Photoshop, however, or digital photography. These new tools are much in evidence on MySpace and Facebook, where everyone grapples with the head shot issue. I've found that the non-sex-worker photos on MySpace often have a pleasing "what the hell" quality, as if the person just uploaded the first thing they could find. Sprinkled among these are the aspiring seducers, whose ingenious, flaw-obscuring photos have given rise to the term "MySpace angles." These include the tummy-hiding overhead shot and the "check out my eye" extreme close-up. Facebook, reflecting its clenched Ivy League origins, has a lot more staged and professional shots. Everyone either looks ready for the job or ready for the canoe ride.
On both sites, though, there are plenty of people who just don't care and upload tons of photos of themselves—even if this means losing the occasional job or two. (See "Bank Intern Busted by Facebook" on Valleywag.) Alongside the blithe, there are those who are superconscious about managing their online images and who change their profile photos constantly in search of the perfect representation. (A seemingly casual yet flattering pic is the strived-for ideal; parents often take the easy way out and post a photo of their kid.) Finally, there are the resisters, who don't want any image of themselves online. If forced into a corner, they put up something jokey or ironic.