My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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the pictures in iChat weird me out

For whatever reason, at Etech, i switched from using Fire to using iChat. I also got conned into using a “real” picture of myself as my image (instead of a butterfly). So, every time i send a message, i see a chipper danah with fuzzy hat representing my text. This completely weirds me out.

What weirds me out more is to see my friends speak back to me. Two of my friends look like their in thinker pose. One has a childhood picture. One is whistfully staring out into nowhere and one is jumping out of a plane. They’re all smiling and looking far too chipper and proper for their own good.

As noted by my previous post, i spent the bulk of yesterday in a dreadful state. Of course, that didn’t prevent me from IMing. So here i am, moaning in bed, greasy, face as white as snow, slumped over IMing with an image that makes me look as chipper as ever. Even *i* can’t take myself seriously. On more than one occasion, a friend would ask how i was feeling and i would respond with something like “::moan:: dreadful…” and i knew that they were seeing the happy fuzzy danah saying this. Cue conflict at its most visceral state!

I regularly carry on a conversation with a friend whose pic makes him look like he’s in thinker mode. No matter how emotional he’s trying to be, i see that post and read him as calm and contemplative even though i know damn well that this is not his state. Ever.

The pictures in iChat weird me out.

So, when i express this to others, they often tell me to hook up a cam and make it an automatically evolving picture and i’m equally terrified. I am a multi-tasker; most of the time that i’m IMing, i’m doing something else as well. For simplicity, imagine that i’m carrying on two conversations. In one, i’m being professional and proper; in the other, i’m gossiping about my girl friend’s date from the previous nite. Why on earth would i want my gossip face revealed to my professional colleague? What fascinates me about IM is that i can be in two contexts simultaneously. My brain is quite capable of doing this, but physical constraints rarely allow it to happen in everyday life. IM is *fantastic* this way. If my picture were updating regularly, it would collapse those two contexts. And besides, the state of my room and/or dress is not for public consumption, particularly at the odd hours in which i’m likely to IM.

Actual faces are so powerful for identifying people. I can look at my IM buddylist and immediately recognize the folks that i know. But i get really screwy emotion detection from it too. When i’m in a grumpy mood and need support, i’d rather talk to the teddy bears, kitty cats and alien creatures than the chipper versions of my friends. I don’t read emotion into the abstract or non-human images nearly as much as the human ones…

iChat is reminding me of why i believe in abstract representations for conversations when cue conflict might be a problem. In any case, i’m going back to the butterfly….

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15 comments to the pictures in iChat weird me out

  • wouldn’t be hard for ichat to update a picture of you from a cam only for the particular chat that you’re typing into. presumably when you’re commenting in a particular thread, then your face and attention and emotion would then match that conversation?

    i bet that would only be a few lines of code for the ichat folks to implement and it would work pretty well…

  • i left this as a suggestion for them, you can to if you want here:
    http://www.apple.com/feedback/ichat.html

  • Ado

    I actually have pictures turned off in my iChat buddy list and the chat windows, so all I see is text.

  • Davee – good point! I wonder if that would solve the problem with attention. (Even if it wouldn’t solve the problem with inappropriate dress…)

    Ado – i definitely agree that text is the good default.. i’m more trying to play along with the “norms” that are created by these technologies, what they encourage us to do. And i’m definitely encouraged to put up a pic on iChat in a way that i never was in AIM before…

  • I wonder if the reason for pictures in iChat and all the “fixes” for making them more single-conversation-relevant are because of an attempt to make IM text-based conversations more “like face to face” interactions. I wonder why there is such a drive to create applications that try to mimic interactions in a physical space? Each kind of space has its own affordances, but some things, like not seeing the other persons’ face, may not be limitations. Of course, there is the problem of misunderstanding emotional content through text. I am not sure involuntary communication of that content is such a good idea though (a face is often and involuntary channel of emotional communication).

    iChat has traded context space (history) for pictures – the pictures take up so much space, you can only see a few lines back at any time (yes I know you can scroll but that’s not the point). I am not sure that’s such a productive trade, though I am sure iChat fans would disagree 🙂

  • As Irina says, there is a huge drive to recreate “reality” in the computer (in many contexts – not least computer games). One problem is that when we get close to the real thing we are also much better at detecting what is not quite right. I think that is one of the reasons why video conferencing rarely works really well – lack of real eye contact for instance.

    The thing is also that more abstract representation (as you say, Danah) leave more room for interpretation. Scott McCloud has this marvelous section in his Understanding Comic where he talks about identification and graphical detail.

    I am going to a talk on iconic and symbolic representation in virtual worlds at ALLC in Gothenburg in June… This is a very interesting issue I think.

  • kt

    I’ve used a photoshop filter on a picture of me from burning man to create an ‘icon’ of myself. Heck it even has goggles so you can’t see me. From Scott Adam’s understanding comics, the more realistic something is, the less we identify ourselves in it.

    So I’d encourage you to use your photo, but stylize it. That way it represents you, but doesn’t need to be the chipper you. I use the “artistic” filters.

    Studio Artist is another program that has same effect (and is written by some friends) http://www.synthetik.com. Think they have demo version

    There is also the opensource program Gimp for macosx http://mmmaybe.gimp.org/macintosh/ that is not as expensive as photoshop.

    And I’d say that the balloon thoughts are not exactly how people talk in real life – it’s an attempt to make things more cartoon-like.

  • This is a really interesting suggestion, but it sounds like one for AOL and not Apple. Since iChat piggybacks on the AIM service, the service itself would have to be upgraded to support per-window buddy icons (instead of the current per-user buddy icons).

    davee: if you get a free Apple Developer Connection membership, you can submit enchancement requests and bug reports.

  • But I like the iChat pictures…

    Danah is getting weirded out by the iChat buddy icon pictures. It was interesting to read her account of why, because I’ve recently discovered that I actually like the pictures (to my surprise). For a long time, I thought the buddy icon thing was j

  • I’d have lots of different personal pictures to choose from. You pick the one that matches what you want to communicate.

    You type in 🙂 and it gives you a normal face.
    You type in 😀 and it gives chipper face.
    You type in >:( and it gives mad face.
    You type in :/ and it gives bored face.

    So, it takes just 2 to 3 characters on your part, and that becomes the associated picture.

  • Scott Moore

    Argh! Virtual world designers figured this out years ago – users want maximum control over their presentation of self. In fact, for several in the early 90’s the most popular hacks to the system were ones that allowed new presentations of self that the developers hadn’t intented (attempted to control).

    While it seems iChat offers flexible control, it sure doesn’t seem to be easy to use.

    In addition to Scott McCloud’s commentary on the difference between abstract and realistic representaions, check out Will Eisner’s Books, “Comics & Sequential Art” and “Graphic Storytelling”. I just picked up the latter because it includes expression of emotion using abstract images. And, after all, isn’t part of danah’s weirding out that her picture was visually telling one emotional story when her words were expressing another? (Apologises to danah if I misappropriated meaning from your story.)

  • Wow this discussion is one reasearch question on top of another! cool! Every time I find a new communication/interaction technology to play with, I am fascinated with how little thought seems to have gone into presentation of self and how much into the “bells and whistles” parts of it. Time and again users hijack systems to make them more expressive and personalized. The problem though, comes when you consider that each individual may want to express themselves in different ways, at different times, to different individuals (the way we do in general). Now consider how to build that in and make it easy to use, helping the user to not get confused among the little iconic representaitons of self – now which one of these means i am sad? How about when you want to change your presentation of self gradually – the way we do when we do social management of our interactions. Even harder to implement, no?

    I think it may be more productive to consider how this space, devoid of something as expressive as a facial expression and body language, forces its users to adjust (people tend to be more explicit about their emotional states in online conversations for example). Maybe building tools that try to approximate “real life” isn’t the answer, but cartoonish, symbolic representations are (although then we get into interpretation problems…). Maybe it would be more useful to really understand the techniques that people develop as they get used to communicating in online social spaces and how these techniques differ from offline social space interactions. Then build tools that support these techniques rather then trying to re-implement the failed video-phone over and over.

  • Glenn Fleishman

    A friend of mine uses dead pets (her own) as her iChat icon, so I see former animals I know (and she loved) as her talking icon. It’s a little unnerving. Better than Charles Manson.

  • Let’s make sure folks don’t get weirded out!

    Ted responds to danah……

  • Edwin Veelo

    I hope I’m not repeating somebody else’s words, because I just quickly scanned through the above comments, but I just wanted to say…

    I DO have a big collection of images of me in iChat (16 to be exact), and I choose one according to my mood, with just two clicks. I have me shouting, smiling, laughing, bored, angry, annoyed, sleepy, spooky, with my wife, etc. And if I don’t have a picture that fits my mood, I make one quickly with my iSight.

    Which two clicks? Just click on your image in the Buddy List and you’ll see the library you can choose from (which you should fill first, of course). It’s sort of an image history, as every new image pushes the others down one position, and the last one off the charts…

    The only disadvantages I’ve encountered with it is that the library seems to be limited to 16 entries, and that when you choose a different image, all images in all chat windows change. It would be better to leave my history with the image I had at that time (and this doesn’t need changing the system at AOL) and only show my new image with new entries.

    I think iChat is the most pleasant IM I’ve used. If only it were compatible with more networks…