Getting the Picture: An Exploration of Livejournal Icons

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Title: Getting the Picture: An Exploration of Livejournal Icons
Creator: Kass
Date(s): June 17, 2003
Medium: online
Topic: Live Journal, Icons
External Links: Getting the Picture: An Exploration of Livejournal Icons, Archived version
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Getting the Picture: An Exploration of Livejournal Icons is an essay by Kass. It is part of the Fanfic Symposium series.

She groups them as:

  • The non-fannish subset
  • Icons, identity, and avatars
  • Actor or character?
  • Meta-communication


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.
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.