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.
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.