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Getting the Picture: an Exploration of LiveJournal Icons
by Kass

As a self-proclaimed fan, geek, and navel-gazer, I'm interested in fannish identity. I'm interested in how we see ourselves, and how we portray ourselves. And because many of my fannish interactions lately are via livejournal, I'm interested in how all of these things relate to livejournal icons.

I started thinking seriously about this in the summer of 2002 when, after three months with only one icon, I started thinking about increasing my collection, and about finding a new default userpic.

I know I recognize many of my livejournal "friends" by their icons, whether or not their names appear on or in the image; I wondered idly whether other people identify icons with their friends, too. Whether that's more or less true if the icon is a photo of said friend, or a manip of a television screencap.

I wondered, too, what it means that some of us use pictures of ourselves, and some of us use pictures of our Beloved Slash Objects (BSOs), and others of us use landscape or still life-type images, and still others of us use drawn or manipulated icons. To what extent are our icons avatars of ourselves? And what else do we use our ranges of icons to communicate?

So I started asking around. I posted a set of questions for people to forward and answer. And here's what I came up with.

The non-fannish subset

Among those who have and use non-fannish icons, many are landscapes; many are self-portraits or photograph-snippets; many are animals. Cats and dragons seem popular. Birds pop up a lot: mommybird has a finch icon, and two of sanj's icons are currently ravens. ("Ravens and crows are totemic for me," she says.) Some animals don't seem to be as widely-used, making icons bearing them immediately-recognizable: therealjae's gecko icons or oracne's turtle, for instance.

Many people use lanning's family of Zen Fen icons, either to reflect a serene attitude, or to try to create one.

But most of the people I spoke with tend to use explicitly fannish icons at least sometimes. No real surprise, given that I was mostly talking to livejournaling media fans.

Icons, identity, and avatars

A lot of us claim to recognize people's posts instantly (on our "friends" pages) via icons. Of course, sometimes icon-recognition is tricky: in my own circle of friends several people use Fanlove/Fansnark yin-yang icons and Zen Fen icons, so I have to look carefully for the username on the post. Even representational icons can cause trouble, as barkley writes: "it was very confusing one week when I had two nearly identical Hermiones on my friends list. I'd get half way through the entry before something jarred me out of it and I realized it was the other person."

Most of the fans I know have at least one icon which features characters from a favored fandom. Sometimes we use them as a kind of pimping (ie hoping readers will be intrigued by the image and want to learn more); other times it's the desire to have the character's likeness on screen as often as possible. Sometimes we want to promote what TwoP popularly calls the Ho-Yay, by finding or making icons that bring subtextual slashiness to light. Sometimes we want to show the world that we're thinking and talking about a given fandom; sometimes we identify with the character in question and want to show that we're feeling kind of...Jim-like today. Or Ray-like. Or Snapish. Or whatever.

shideem says she "wanted cool artwork of women who seemed to be appropriate avatars." Her icons are "non-photographic representations of fictional uppity women/girls."

Among sanj's icons are characters from the Batverse, and women from Firefly and Buffy; her default at the moment is one of Willow overlaid with Vamp!Willow with a caption reading "evil, skanky, kind of gay," "as I currently feel evil, skanky, and kind of gay, all in a vaguely positive way."

"I definitely identify with my Chloe--and a lot of the captions on my Chloe icons reflect my mad love for the character," says taraljc.

(Despite what the above examples might suggest, the majority of people I talked to don't necessarily take gender into account when choosing an icon: character traits seem much more important than gender or race.)

"It's self-deflection," destina comments. "I don't want my real life or my photo splayed out across my journal, so I objectify my BSOs instead. Always, I've gravitated toward fandoms where I strongly identified with aspects of particular characters...So it makes sense that folks in fandom choose the likeness of fictional characters to represent parts of ourselves."

In contrast, ratcreature says, "I can't really imagine representing myself through pictures of other real people or tv characters, especially not when the picture is a photo." All of her icons are variations on a creature she drew herself. "Many of my self-portraits have looked like this since I've been a teenager, I look like this in the artwork representing me in my high school yearbook for example (except then I was wearing a braid, so my avatar had a braid too). So I know that this kind of representation of myself is fairly stable, which I think is important, so that it's easily recognizable as 'me' and not constantly changing."

People who post under their real-life (RL) names seem generally likelier to use recognizable photos of themselves in their icons. They've already made the decision to participate in fandom under their RL names, which suggests a certain comfort level with having their fannish and RL lives intersect.

But many who post under RL names still opt for icons depicting actors or characters, and the pseudonymous users I spoke with agreed that they wouldn't put their faces on pseud icons. (Many people use small portions of photos -- an eye, an ear, a pair of glasses -- so they can feel accurately represented, but not identifiable.)

Some of us use fannish icons when talking about fandom, and more personalized icons (snaps of ourselves or parts of ourselves; manips of photos of where we live or where we've traveled) when talking about personal subjects. One of jacquez's icons, for instance, is a digital photograph of a home-baked loaf of bread. She uses that one when posting about food and cooking. "I've occasionally thought of replacing it with a shot of my cutting board, knife, and various chopped veggies, but I haven't gotten around to that. For something as personal as cooking is to me, I don't think I could use something for that icon that wasn't something I'd made."

Actor or character?

A lot of people seem to identify, to one extent or another, with the images on their icons...but when those images are from cinematic or televised media, are we depicting actor or character? A very few folks seemed confused by my distinction between making icons of characters and making icons of actors, but that reaction was rare. Most agreed with the_star_fish: "I think it's obvious which icons are characters and which are 'Real People,' and I think it's an important distinction to make."

Most folks said their icons were of characters, not of actors. sanj goes a step further than most, arguing that she's most comfortable with icons from comics and graphic novels because they express character without being bogged down in character-actor confusion. She's interested, she says, in what transcends actors and genres, ie whatever's essential about Superman whether he's played by Tom Welling or Christopher Reeve or inked on a page.

Most folks seem to prefer iconifying characters to iconifying actors. Not always, though: blunaris, for instance, uses icons of both Michael Rosenbaum and Lex, and is a bigger fan of MR than of the character he plays on Smallville. She was clear that she doesn't identify with her icons, though.

As was carlacoupe, who laughed at my suggestion that one might identify with an icon of a BSO. "Identify with them? Hell, no. But I love the fictional characters, since I don't know the actors from squat."

The actor/character issue takes on a different tenor (no pun intended) in Real Person Slash (RPS) fandoms like popslash and LoTRips. From what I've gathered, people in RPS fandoms iconify actors/singers, not characters--or iconify the strange real-person/character hybrids that some RPS celebrities seem to become.

The RPS folks with whom I spoke were popslashers, and tended to have a variety of icons of their band members, not just icons of their favored member or pairing. The icon trend may be related to the larger popslash tendency not to have One True Pairings -- which is way too large a tangent for me to pursue here.


Most people who responded to my queries said they rotate their icons either with post topic (ie, using an icon of a given character when talking about that fandom) or with mood. Some have specific icons for each season.

Almost everyone I spoke with agreed that icons can be used to communicate in a "meta" way. For instance, there's ratcreature's animated "zen...or not" icon, which she uses to comment on fannish kerfluffles. Arguably thermidor's icon of Benton Fraser overlaid with the text "I have two Rays. Two." serves as a rebuke to the memory of the Ray Wars. And flambeau writes that she loves "the way icon usage can be both... primary-level fandom commentary, which is to say, commentary on the actual fandom, episodes and appearances etc, and secondary-level, meta commentary on fannish discourse. New icons are sometimes the fastest way to find out what's up with the fandom at large, and how people are reacting to various events."

Many folks agreed that icons or icon families could be used to reflect fannish status, and that there are popular icon-makers just as there are popular writers and vidders. Although people were able to list the icon-makers they felt were most prolific or beloved, that answer seemed to reflect the answerer's circle of friends (real or livejournal) more than anything. I don't think there's an empirical scale for measuring icon-maker popularity: no icon awards, for instance. Maybe that's because icons tend to be so ephemeral: many people change their icon sets frequently, to reflect new images, new styles, new fannish obsessions.

I had wondered whether icon families might make people feel excluded -- like, "all the cool kids have icons by slodwick, why don't I have one?" Fortunately, no one bore out my theory. People seem to be happy to make each other icons, whether solicited or unsolicited. Fandom can feel like a playground sometimes, in both good and bad ways, but apparently we've largely outgrown this manifestation of grade-school cliqueishness...or else it just doesn't manifest via livejournal icons.

So after all that...what did I learn?

Identifying with icons, or considering one's icons as expressions of facets of oneself, seems pretty common. After all, that's why we choose icons, right? To represent us, or something we're interested in, alongside our words.

Beyond that, it's hard to make definitive statements. People's choices of icons, and reasons for using them, vary pretty widely. Most of us have icons featuring a favorite fannish character -- except for those who don't. Most of us have a range of icons for different topics and moods -- except for those who don't. Most of us make icons of characters, not actors -- except for those who don't. Most of us identify with our icons at least a little -- except... you get the picture.

Back in '94, in my early days on the web (knowing 'paragraph' and 'bold' tags practically made one an html coder in those days) I had the pleasure of helping some friends try to build a graphical MOO. (No, I can't tell you how they did it: I wasn't that technical then and I'm not that technical now. Sorry, folks.) Avatars were a fascinating question: what kind of userpics would people choose? Would they build avatars using standard image-pieces, like icon Legos, or would they spend time crafting their own?

That graphical MOO went the way of the dodo, but livejournal icons strike me as a similar kind of thing. Maybe there's an essential divide between people who choose images which look like them, and people who choose images that are simply cool. (As in games like Tekken and SoulCalibre: do you pick a fighter who shares your body type, or a fighter who looks like they could kick some ass?)

Ultimately, what's interesting about livejournal icon usage may be that we're choosing pictures at all. Despite the graphical capabilities of the web, for the last several years most online fannish interaction has taken place on mailing lists, which tend to be text-only. Now that we're crafting fannish spaces in places like livejournal, we're finding images to suit our text. Like .sig lines, only visual.

Icon sets change often, but general icon trends seem pretty far. I'm curious to see how and whether these trends change over the next several years, assuming livejournal continues to exist and to be a locus for fannish community and conversation. Consider this essay a snapshot of where I think we are now -- a little one-inch-by-one-inch picture.

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