Image and essence
Consider if you will the user icon, those 100 X 100 slices of you, me, and them on our video-enabled phones, our social-networking platforms, our chat clients, our blog communities, our photo and video sites, and our message boards. You don't have to be a gamer or an online dater to have a digital version of yourself out there making some kind of statement about your essence in relation to others'. But what does it say?
In that they visually represent an idea beyond our need for simple identification, user icons are a form of art: a category of self-portraiture as omnipresent and democratic as the technologies we're using. Like tiny digital cave drawings, these Happy Bunnies, eyeball close-ups, and talking Björks provide a snapshot of our values and desires and satisfy our primal need for self-representation. Yet they're also more discursive – open to the world and inviting comment – than any scrawled symbols of the hunt; "buddy icon," Flickr's term, is warm and familial, as if you've just created your own little pixilated friend you can take out for ice cream.
With billions of images at your fingertips, loose regard for intellectual property, and respect for file size and format, you can be anything you want, such as "cute cheese." ("Because I love cheese.") After all, unless you're a MySpace girl, the connection between the signifier and the signified can be particularly opaque online: Last week a breakdancing alien invited me to consider an online degree. (I did not.)
I also met Bubbles from Trailer Park Boys, Wes Studi, Foamy the squirrel, Kurt Cobain, and the crew from Ghost Hunters. There was a battle for John Krasinki. ("This one is my boyfriend." "Um, you mean our boyfriend." "My boyfriend!") I saw Larry Craig with devil horns, Little Edie from Grey Gardens, Clara Bow, Porter Wagoner, Cherie Currie, Beast Boy, a Ronald McDonald look-alike in handcuffs, Pee-wee Herman hitchhiking to Texas, Paul Simonon smashing his bass, a burlesque clown, Mentok the Mindtaker, and "the inside of a tree in a Ghanaian monkey sanctuary." Several users fished for sympathy with the despondent bunny from Bernard Derriman's animation "Everyone Else Has Had More Sex Than Me."
Mood themes create a lexicon of elliptical imagery. Author Poppy Z. Brite, whose blog relates the experience of rebuilding in New Orleans, recently posted with a pic of worms after the neighbor she'd been complaining would "bother us to death" brought over tacos. "Why yes, now that you mention it, I am a first-class shit sometimes," she wrote.
But it's not anything goes. Last year, popular blogging platform LiveJournal drew the ire of users by amending its terms of service to exclude default user photos depicting all forms of nudity instead of "graphically sexual or violent" images, as previously stated. Users with visible nipples ran the risk of account suspension by LJ's Abuse Team, even the medieval Madonnas and a generously Photoshopped, topless Bea Arthur, who was actually quite droll.