A while ago, I was in a discussion exploring how we might be perceived by someone who doesn’t know us, if the first thing they encountered were our Twitter profiles. For clarity, that’s the page someone drops on if they follow the link from your handle in a tweet, or perhaps from a link you might have provided specifically to do the job of getting someone there, perhaps from your blog, an email ‘signature,’ LinkedIn or about.me. It was only when we began to unpick it, how large the number of actors at work actually was. Some of these make clear, unambiguous statements, some are open to interpretation and others might work completely in the background.
When someone visits your Twitter ‘homepage’ or profile, their first experience is of the page as a whole; the sum of the parts which you’ve chosen to present to the world as a representation of you. This is the part of Twitter over which you have most control, at least of the content, if not the layout. There will be those who’ve agonised about what to include (and leave out), some who added the basics – just enough to appear to have made some effort, and those for whom adding any information at all was little more than through some sense of obligation. Albeit it a simplification of user’s motivations, this perhaps hints at the kinds of interpretations visitors will make on seeing a profile. I know that I make judgements about who to follow based on what I see on their profile and doubtless, others do the same, though naturally with different priorities.
There are a number of players on this stage, but I’d argue they fall into two groups: static and dynamic.
These are mainly passive, in the sense that most are not interactive and lead nowhere else. They provide markers of identity, or in some cases distractors, if someone prefers anonymity or to engage in identity play. The two big hitters here are the ‘profile pic’ or avatar, and the ‘Bio.’ A quick scan of your follower list will show the range of pictures people use for their avatars. We might categorise them as photos or graphics, then subdivide them further into headshots, full body, pairs or groups, locations/landscapes, cartoon style, representational, artwork and so on. Those new to Twitter may not have gone beyond the default ‘egg,’ or indeed have consciously decided to retain it. Perhaps more than any other item though, the avatar says ‘this is me;’ whether that’s through a lifelike rendition, a location which says something about who I am, or it’s something completely different to suggest humour, tastes or attitude. Some people retain the same avatar for a long period (I have only had two in seven years), others change them regularly, either in whole or in part by adding a ‘twibbon’ to indicate support for a topical issue. Though the addition of a twibbon to your avatar might appear to be a small act, that tiny change could affect entirely how you are perceived – “I never realised xxx thought in that way.” So if your avatar shows you, your partner and your children; a tropical sun-kissed beach of golden sand; or a famous movie star, what are you trying to convey … and how is it being received?
Like the avatar, your Bio statement (a brief 160 character text entry) performs work on your behalf and like your avatar, it also appears in the mini profile listed when you view a follower or followee list. Once more, it often remains untouched, unless your circumstances change – a new job, change in personal life etc. Is it a mission statement, a mini-CV, or a life history? Does it state who you are, what you do or summarise your personal philosophy? Is it serious and business-like, humourous or off the wall, motivational … or completely absent? For me, this is a crucial actor in influencing my decision whether or not to follow. I (mainly) follow people associated with education in one form or another, so if the Bio doesn’t indicate that ,or is in someway appealing for another reason, then I tend not to follow.
One element forged at the point of creation and firmly static is your Twitter ‘handle.’ Only by creating a new account can this be changed.** You are permitted however, to change your ‘real’ name at any point, perhaps to allow for the fact that people’s names often do change with circumstances. But does the handle really matter? Does it do any work on your behalf? Well I guess that depends once more on the form you choose. Is it a close rendition of your actual name? Does it reflect your role in some way, or your location (@IaninSheffield – “But what if you move elsewhere?!”). Is it humorous, flippant, ironic, or for some reason pseudonymic?
Emblazoned across the top of your profile is your header image; at least if you’ve chosen to include one. We see here a range of types, not dissimilar to the avatar, but doubtless because of the greater space available, rarely a headshot. The header image is perhaps an opportunity to extend the story your profile is telling – ‘my avatar shows you who I am, my Bio tells you about my job and here in the header is what I’m interested in’ – a hobby, pastime, my family, my school. The additional space is used by some as an opportunity to include further text; an inspirational or pithy quote perhaps. Again however, what we might say in our header image may be received in different ways. One person’s inspiration invites a gag reflex in someone else; someone’s pithy comment intended to be amusing might offend another.
There are a couple of other bit(?)-players which tend to be static: your location and a web link. It’s quite common for people not to explicitly express a location, although they may nevertheless do so through secondary channels such as tweets. The web link offers a real opportunity to extend your profile into a much bigger space and provide a much richer version of the story you wish to tell. Might it just lead to an About.me page which then guides the reader off to other parts of your digital self, or will it be your website or blog? Of those people I follow, one third do not provide a link to anywhere else; how should I read that?
The date you joined Twitter also forms part of your profile and is of course completely static. Once you’ve created your account, you have no further control over that item of information, yet it may nevertheless influence how others behave with you. Some people may cut new users some slack if they inadvertently breach etiquette; others may seek out long-established and experienced(?) users to follow.
Some people might see the profile as encapsulated within the elements listed above, but in the chat I mentioned at the start, we also identified other aspects of your twitter activity which can also be conceived as contributing to your profile; at least in the sense that people may use them to make judgements about the kind of person you enact through Twitter.
A set of numbers can’t say much about you surely? Well, maybe they do.
Is 13 000 tweets a lot to you? Or what if it was just 13? Does the number of tweets someone has written help you build up a picture of the person? What about the number of people the person is following, or being followed by? Does a vast number of followers indicate popularity … and ‘popularity’ on what scale? Is what they tweet likely to be reaching a wide audience,and does that matter? For example, if I see a number of tweets in the tens of thousands, I worry that this person’s tweets might begin to dominate my timeline. I’d then want to check the kinds of things they tweet about – if it’s all quality and relevant (on my terms), then I might be prepared to go with that. What about the number of ‘Likes,’ ‘Moments’ or ‘Lists?’ For me, the presence of Lists indicates someone who is trying to make sense in some way of those they’re following, perhaps for their own benefit, perhaps for others. Lists go one step further for me, suggesting someone who is slightly more tech-savvy.
So raw numbers alone might be useful, but each number is also a shop-front for much richer information. Click on ‘Following’ and you can immediately view all those people being followed, which in turn can help to provide a sense of what the person is interested in. The same is true for each of the numerical elements.
‘Followers you know’ and ‘Photos and videos’ comprise an amalgam of numerical and graphical information which also help your judgements. How many people are we both connected with and who are they? In other words, do we have things in common? ‘Photos’ pulls together the kinds of imagery this person shares on Twitter, which again provides a glimpse into another facet of their behaviour.
Last, but definitely not least, what does this person tweet about? When you begin to scan back through the most recent ten, twenty or thirty tweets, perhaps you begin to get a much better sense of whether you’re likely to want to follow this person than the (sometimes) well-crafted static profile components. Do the tweets contain content which you find interesting, challenging, informative or humorous? What criteria are important to you? What are you looking for?
All the different constituents within your profile reflect aspects of your life; what you’re doing, where you’ve been, who you associate with, but also to some extent, what you think – your beliefs, opinions and attitudes. They undoubtedly influence people in several ways; by helping them to decide to follow you, by providing links to other people, or perhaps nudging you to rethink your own profile or the way you present yourself on Twitter. They all work hard, but differently depending on the viewer. For me, the starting point is the Bio; sometimes I don’t get beyond that. A Bio might press me into an immediate click of the ‘Follow’ button, provide enough incentive to explore other aspects of the profile, or send me running for the hills. If I’m on the middle path, my next visit would be to the url, if there is one; here I probably have access to a much richer bank of information and am likely to be able to be better placed to decide. If not, I’ll then check recent tweets to see what the person tweets about and how they tweet. Endless retweets or shameless self-promotion are significant turn-offs for me. With that, I’ve probably now been influenced one way of the other. So the profile, or aspects of it have co-opted me to click follow and set up that initial association, which may lead to … well, there are multiple paths to follow from there.
What choices do you make before deciding to follow someone and how big a part does their profile play?
(After drafting the above, I spotted a tweet from Aaron Davis, pointing to a post he wrote which covers very similar ground, but from a slightly different perspective. It’s helpful to see what Aaron views as significant actors, but also how we might view constructing a profile as ‘branding.’)
Hat-tip: To Chris Bailey for the aforementioned discussion and providing the stimulus material for this post.
Grateful to Aaron (once more) for pointing out that actually, you now can change your Twitter handle.