This may come as a shock to some, but there was once a time when having some sort of presence on the internet wasn’t a prerequisite for being considered a real, actual human being; you were just…you, a person who tangibly existed in the physical world we all live in.
It’s safe to say things have changed, as you might as well not even exist if you don’t have some sort of online footprint. We’ve reached a point where we basically serve as conduits for the social media platforms that allow us to connect with people in a virtual space in exchange for what has become the most valuable commodity in existence: our personal data. Most of the people we “know” (and, in turn, those who “know” us) are really just a unique combination of 1s and 0s, and with human interaction at a premium these days, we’re defined by the tweets, Instagram photos, TikTok videos, etc. that we post (I apologize if I’m coming off as a bit heady here but this is what happens when you watch The Social Dilemma and The Matrix in the same weekend).
When I first signed up for Facebook, I actually had a friend make an account for me because I was too scared to put any of my personal information online (and because my mom told me I wasn’t allowed to). I may not have coined the now-ubiquitous axiom “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product” but it turns out 14-year-old me was pretty justified in being skeptical of the platform I felt obligated to join because I didn’t want to feel left out after all my friends starting jumping off that digital bridge.
It’s been all downhill from there, and like basically everyone else on the planet, I’ve seen my brain cells steadily disappear and my attention span gradually erode after falling victim to the algorithms that have made me a slave to the various apps I spend hours perusing every single day. I know I have a problem but I haven’t really been able to get past that first step when it comes to curbing my addiction. Deleting your online presence entirely is the most mortal social sin you can commit in this day and age, and even if I do manage to wean myself off at some point, there’s one particular aspect that’ll likely keep me coming back: profile pictures.
Common knowledge dictates that you never get a second chance to make a first impression and I’m a firm believer that is indeed the case. When I was 12, I got the opportunity to ask Joba Chamberlain (my hero at the time) for an autograph only for him to walk right past me without saying a word. Sure, he was on his way to the dugout ahead of a big start when I called his name, but I’ve hated him ever since and cannot describe how thrilled I was when he was at the center of the infamous aerial assault that commenced during the 2007 ALDS when an army of bugs descended upon Progressive Field.
Karma’s a real bitch, Joba.
Nowadays, it’s pretty common to meet someone in person for the first time and ask all the questions you’re expected to during an initial encounter even though you basically know their entire life story because you spent way too much time stalking them on Instagram. It can be an awkward experience, as you want to ask them why their girlfriend Erika hasn’t made an appearance on their feed in over three weeks but you’d come off as an absolute psycho if you did so. It’s also easy to assume they’ve done the exact same thing, resulting in awkward back-and-forth where neither person acknowledges the reality we currently inhabit.
The carefully curated feeds everyone uses to convince everyone else they live a perfect life play a key role in how we present ourselves online, but as far as first impressions are concerned, the profile picture reigns supreme. It serves as your initial intro and sets the tone of what’s to follow, meaning you need to do everything in your power to craft the perfect one.
These photos should paint a picture of who you are, what you do, and what you’re all about. When my Facebook account was first forced upon me, I reluctantly uploaded one that I felt provided the best snapshot of myself at the time. I wanted to make sure people knew I was an athlete, had a little bit of swag courtesy of the black tape on my baseball bat, and knew how to perfectly bend the brim of a hat.
I think it’s safe to say I nailed it.
Unfortunately, not everyone possesses the same gift that I do, as I can’t even count the number of people who constantly post updates online on an account with a profile pic that screams the exact opposite of the aesthetic (or, as it’s frequently referred to in the common parlance, the “Personal Brand”) they’re trying to construct for themselves. It’s honestly sad, and over time, I’ve identified a number of fatal flaws that would be incredibly easy to avoid if they’d given it more than a modicum of thought before saying to themselves, “Yup, this is the one.”
Of course, this is much easier said than done considering the number of directions you can go. People constantly rotate through different moods and phases as they make their way through life, so capturing the persona they want to communicate can be a very formidable task. There are so many factors to take into consideration: the platform you’re posting on, how frequently you want to showcase your progression, how long you want to cling to the person you were in the past, if you’re going for looks, humor, or trying to flex, and countless others—all of which we’ve debated (either knowingly or subconsciously) at some point in time.
How you portray yourself online can have some serious real-world implications, as evidenced by an example that definitely isn’t based on true events. Here’s the scenario: you meet the perfect girl on a dating app. You’re chatting it up, flirting a bit but still showing restraint because screenshots exist and you don’t want to end up on some account devoted to showcasing the worst dudes on Tinder.
After enough back and forth, you decide to check your bank account to see if you can swing a date without getting an email warning you about your dangerously low balance. She says yes and asks to take the conversation over to Instagram to “make things easier” even though it’s obvious she’s just trying to put together a scouting report.
You tell her it’s “@chasethatmoney420” and unconvincingly claim it was just some dumb handle you decided on in high school you’ve never gotten around to changing. Then, she’s greeted by a picture that looks something like this:
In fairness to that dude, I took that from a royalty-free stock photo site, so while I can’t speak to his actual personality, he’d probably get hit with an instablock if that was his actual profile picture.
Again, mistakes like this one are super avoidable. Sadly, far too many people online try to follow in the footsteps of the “success coaches” who’ve made a fortune by charging others for life advice to attain the status they aspire to but will almost never reach. If you’re an average-looking dude with an equally average life, there’s nothing the most carefully-staged photoshoot in the world can do when it comes to covering up the person you really are. Your delusions of grandeur are simply setting you up for failure, and you’re much better off focusing on a photo that makes you look as presentable as possible and communicates who you are at your core.
In the end, there are really three major questions you have to ask yourself, the first of which is…
1. What am I looking to achieve on this particular platform?
Every social media site serves a different purpose. For example, Facebook is largely for seeing what the weird kids from high school have done with their life, ruining any relationships you might still have with distant family members over politics, and possibly reconnecting with someone you view as a potential bae.
These specific goals can greatly vary from person to person and platform to platform, but in the end, the picture you choose needs to set the overall tone of your account. Consequently, you need to figure out how to capture that vibe with a single snapshot of yourself.
When Kevin Durant first joined Myspace, this was what he opted to go with.
Now, KD was clearly trying to paint himself as “The Cool Guy Who Refuses To Smile In Pictures” in an attempt to attract some female suitors who are into that kind of thing. However, he eventually reached a point where he became “The Guy Who Uses A Screenshot From A Movie” (specifically The Sandlot) on Twitter and is currently rocking this photo of a solar eclipse on Instagram because he’s reached a point where everyone knows who he is and can subsequently get away with not actually using a photo of himself.
— cнεтσɱ 🕊 (@zt000tz) December 26, 2019
The point I’m trying to make here is that your profile picture will naturally evolve as you reach different stages in life. When you first signed up for Instagram in high school, you may have done so with the sole purpose of impressing Katie with a photo of yourself posing shirtless at the gym in the hopes you’d be able to catch her when she swooned upon seeing it. However, that’s not going to do you any favors once you get to college intent on getting into Sigma Chi, as it might help you once you manage to make it through the pledging process but could result in the guys in charge of deciding who makes the cut think you’re trying to be overly alpha and in turn hurt your chance of ultimately getting a bid.
Again, every form of social media can be defined by a few primary uses. In addition to what I’ve already mentioned, Facebook is a place for remembering birthdays, keeping up with old acquaintances (and the dudes who got way too into chemtrail conspiracies) so you want to keep it fairly generic. Instagram is where you make your life look so much cooler than it actually is and your picture should thus make you come off way cooler than you actually are. Twitter is a bit trickier and you can really get away with anything unless you’re using it for your job or some other professional capacity (if that’s the case, just go with the cropped picture of you in a suit and tie at a wedding that you use on LinkedIn).
That basically covers all the bases as far as this topic is concerned, which brings us to our next one.
2. What do I want people to think about me when they see my profile picture for the first time?
This is really an extension of the first question I posed but it serves as an opportunity to allow me to address things a bit more specifically. For example, if you’re like me and use Instagram in the hopes you might one day get an invitation to live in the Sway House with all of the Cool TikTok People, you might want to hit up a friend who knows a thing or two about photography (or at least take advantage of Portrait mode) for something refined and polished enough to prove you can hang with them.
With that said, exclusively trying to attract the attention of people who can justify listing “Influencer” on their tax return puts you at risk of rubbing plenty of others the wrong way, so it’s important to attack things from multiple angles to answer the question at hand. As a result, we should talk about some of the better paths to take and the ones you should avoid at all costs.
For example, how many times have you clicked on someone’s account and seen something like this?
There is perhaps no better way to showcase a staggering lack of self-awareness than going down the “Guy Holding A Fish” route, as there aren’t many things triter than trying to impress people by proving you know how to catch one just like the countless humans who’ve managed to do the same thing for tens of thousands of years. Again, this is a generic picture I had to use because of the pesky “photo rights” issues I’m forced to abide by, but if I came across this on a random profile, I’d assume this guy still lives in the same town he grew up in, proposed to the first and only girlfriend he had in high school, and relies on fishing to get a much-needed break because he probably regrets marrying her in hindsight.
I just call it like I see it.
This may be the most overused profile pic subgenre in existence but it’s far from the only one.
The “Doing A Business”
This style (a.k.a. “The Vincent Adultman”) should obviously be your go-to when you’re trying to network professionally online but you’re going to come off as The Most Insufferable Man In The World if you use it on platforms that serve any other purpose.
We get it, man. You’ve probably done more with your life than most people and want to make sure everyone knows about it. You judge others not on the content of their character but the content of their résumé and the rest of your feed will probably be littered with pictures straight out of Peloton’s pitch deck and of all the other shit you’ve been able to buy by selling your soul to some faceless corporation.
Your comments might be flooded with people who are “So happy for you, bro!” but good luck convincing yourself they mean it.
The “I’m Capable Of Making Friends”
This is one of the better options you can turn to, although as you may or may not be able to tell, I was forced to crop out someone in order to meet the typical dimension of a profile pic so you have to be prepared to deal with the ensuing drama if you’re forced to do the same.
These photos are great because they prove that you have the ability to develop human relationships with multiple people and are down to let loose every once in a while, which are usually viewed as objectively good things. You have a couple of main options to go with when taking this approach: the “Let’s All Stand Next To Each Other To Show We’re Friends” and the “Oh, I Didn’t Realize This Candid Picture Was Being Taken” even though you absolutely made sure the camera got your good side when you noticed someone pointing a lens in your direction at a social gathering.
If you’re looking for a way to say “I’m chill and normal,” it’s hard to go wrong with this
I Love My Family (Or At Least Pretend To Get Along With Them)
This particular type can be broken down into a few different categories, some of which you can use to your advantage and others that aren’t the best look. For example, if you’re a single guy who goes with a picture of your immediate family, I’m going to go out on a limb and assume you’re not very popular if that’s really the best you could do.
On the other hand, if you’re married and have decided to do the whole “kids” thing, there’s nothing wrong with routinely updating your profile to keep people posted on how things are going and showcasing what’s important to you (which you’ll probably just end up doing instinctively because it seems like becoming a parent flips some switch in your brain that requires you to constantly post life updates on Facebook).
The “Sorry, I’m Taken”
I might get some backlash for saying this, but people who include their significant other in their profile picture just straight-up suck. We get it; you’re happier than the rest of us because you always have someone to talk to, help you navigate life, and have sex with. Must be nice.
There’s nothing wrong with posting individual pictures every now and then, but if you decide to broadcast your relationship to the world by making it the first thing people see when they look you up, you might as well just take the dive and become one of those couples of makes a joint account.
The “Look At This Exotic Location I’ve Traveled To”
Based on a bunch of movies and shows I’ve seen, there was once a time when people went on vacation and then invited their friends over to watch a slideshow of all the cool places they visited. Sure, showing off a single picture of yourself in a national park or some foreign country might not be as bad as subjecting acquaintances to a party that’s about as enjoyable as a multilevel marketing recruitment session but you’d be hard-pressed to find something more basic, so you’re going to want to avoid this at all costs.
The “Clinging Onto Your Glory Days”
Based on the research I conducted while putting this together, there may be nothing people prefer more than hanging onto their past by going with a picture taken around the time they officially peaked in life. This is especially true with athletes who played sports in high school or college but it also applies to those who once landed the lead role in their school’s production of a Broadway musical or served as the frontman in a band that broke up years ago.
I get why people want to hang onto the past, but at some point or another, you’ve got to move on.
The “Silly One”
Everyone knows that it’s impossible for a group of four or more girls to take a picture together without someone saying, “Now let’s do a silly one!” I get it; people want to show that they don’t take life too seriously, but if you decide to use your profile picture to show off how “quirky” and “zany” you are, you are doing yourself a grave disservice.
I should note the above collection of different styles isn’t even close to an exhaustive list of the options out there. If you spend a day scrolling through social media, you’ll inevitably stumble across profiles featuring someone posing with a celebrity, pictures of nature, messages supporting whatever social cause is all the rage at the moment, and at least one person wearing the Guy Fawkes mask from V for Vendetta. In the end, I just want to make sure you’re aware that what you pick sets the tone for who you are as a person, which begs the question…
3. Is this an accurate depiction of who I am?
As I’ve already alluded to, most people use their profile picture (and social media in general) to portray themselves as a better and more successful version of who they actually are. However, there are others who manage to sell themselves short; if you’re a good-looking guy with a decent job on the hunt for a potential romantic partner, it might be a good idea to change the picture of you on a dirt bike as a teenager complete with a helmet that makes it impossible to see your face.
I’d assume most people were first initially introduced to the concept of “catfishing” early last decade courtesy of Manti Te’o’s non-existent dead girlfriend. If you watched the MTV series of the same name, you know it’s a rampant issue in the online dating community. However, I don’t think we pay enough attention to the “lifestyle catfishing” that’s become all the rage, as there are so many people on the internet who are in a constant arms race to exaggerate their lives and subsequently make other people hate their own to a point where they’ll rent out a fake private jet for a photoshoot.
Do. Not. Be. That. Person.
By doing this, you’re setting expectations that will be impossible to live up to. You can’t have a profile picture of yourself in a sharp suit drinking whiskey in a classy cocktail bar if the rest of your feed contradicts everything you’re trying to communicate by going with that. I get wanting to make all of your former friends and exes think you’re doing great without them but there’s a difference between exaggerating a bit and blatantly portraying yourself as someone you obviously aren’t.
The reason I wanted to write about this specific issue in the first place is that I spend the majority of my life online even though I know I’d lead a much happier one if that wasn’t the case. If I’d resisted the urge to join Facebook, there’s a chance I wouldn’t constantly be dealing with the irrational amount of anger brought to me courtesy of the people with a lack of self-awareness broadcasting and transparent fakeness to the world that I come across online on a daily basis.
As a result, I hope this guide will be able to help you avoid becoming one of them by not just rethinking your current strategy but embracing these lessons in the long run to avoid eventually becoming the person who goes with a profile picture of themselves surrounded by Hooters waitresses in their mid-30s.
I wish you all the best of luck in avoiding that fate.