I avoid looking at other peoples’ faces online.

I also avoid showing my own real face online.

This isn’t just a meaningless eccentricity (though it’s certainly eccentric). I really and honestly would prefer not to know what the people who write what I enjoy reading look like – and for them not to know what I look like.

Humans evolved in close-knit small scale societies, where everyone knew everyone else; and this has led to the development of all manner of cognitive shortcuts which enhance individuals’ success in such a setting. However, those same cognitive shortcuts don’t necessarily lead to the best possible judgments in today’s societies. Just like a chocolate bar containts enough fat and sugar to superstimulate the brain’s reward centers, which is part of a process that can lead to obesity and health problems, Hollywood faces contain enough symmetry and regularity to superstimulate other parts of the brain, which can be part of a process that leads to other problems. Similarly, a parallel can be made between basing one’s diet on taste versus nutrition compared to basing one’s interactions on appearance or content.

Fortunately, there are a few existing social models in which appearance is entirely irrelevant. One of my favorites is the classical hacker culture, such as the variant descended from MIT’s model railroad club, in which all that really mattered was the quality of your code, not your hair style, ethnic background, or accent. This particular model has carried on into the present-day open source community, at least to a degree; and can be found in other online communities where people tend not to share photos of themselves, such as Second Life or discussion boardes.

However, even given all of that, there are /some/ benefits to having a visual identity which is memorable to the reader. After all, the human brain /does/ have a lot of wiring to deal with faces, and it would be inefficient to avoid using that wiring for positive effect, where it’s possible to do so. I’ve tried a few such styles over the years, such as a text-based logo, or the basilisk ‘The Parrot’; but have, as of October in 2011, settled on the cheerful, cartoony image drawn for me by Miss Critter, which is based on the blue-haired rat character I use as my online alter-ego (who herself has developed into a fictional character with her own full-fledged science-fiction universe): http://www.datapacrat.com/iconrat.jpg .

Using this face offers me just about everything I want from a visual identity, and just about nothing I don’t. It’s served me well the last year and a half; I suppose we’ll just have to see how long it lasts, until either I find something that does the job even better or my priorities change.

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