In fannish usage, an icon is a little picture on a webpage. Such icons may be used by fans for self-identification, to support their fandom, or simply for decoration.
The word "icon" originally meant a type of small religious painting (especially associated with Eastern Europe), which is often itself the object of veneration. From this, the word has acquired the more general meaning of a symbolic picture used as a represention of something of significance.
In computer technology, the term "icon" is applied to graphics employed to represent functions as part of the interface with the operating system. (For example, you may click on a tiny picture of a printer in order to print something out.) Icons of this type tend to be of uniform size, often as small as 32 pixels wide and 32 pixels high (32px X 32px).
One of the earliest forms of computer fanart was the creation of icons of this sort based on fan subjects. For example, there are Star Trek icons that depict a Starfleet communicator pin, and Forever Knight icons that depict the Toronto skyline. Such icons are commonly the same size as the ones used on computers. Within this limited area must be fitted in a recognizable picture. Early icons were simple line art with filled-in colour. Because of browser limitations, they used a very limited palette of "computer-safe" colours. Such icons are often .gif files; but, at one time, a special .ico format was also used.
Coaster from the Raven
With the advent of journaling sites, forums, and instant-messaging services, icons developed a new use as visual identifiers for a user on a given service. Such an icon may also be referred to as an avatar, userpic, buddy icon, or display image. Sizes range from 32 x 32 pixels to 128 x 128 pixels.
With the larger size, it is possible to create more interesting and complicated graphics; and the creation of icons has become a popular form of fanart. Artists often photomanipulate screen captures or book-cover art directly related to the fandom; but personal photos, original art, and art/photos from other sources are also commonly used as the basis for icons. Text may be added as part of the process of manipulation. Given the larger size of these icons, it is often possible to fit in quotations (even dialogue) from the fan source, and add signatures, comments, or jokes. There are also text-only icons.
Icons on Livejournal-type platforms
On most forums and messaging services, a user has one image that gets used on every post/conversation, unless they upload another to replace it, which then becomes the default. On Livejournal-type journaling services, users can upload several images, and choose among them when posting an entry or comment.
On Livejournal-type journaling services, icons are 100 x 100-pixel images that appear next to users' names when they make a post or comment on the site. Users on most LJ-type sites can have multiple icons and choose which one to use for each post or comment.
This ability to choose is popular enough with the userbases to make extra icon space be a perk, with additional slots granted with paid membership.
Since making fandom-related icons is a popular form of fanart, there are many communities devoted to sharing icons that fans have created.
Icons are also used as part of a user's identity: the user can create or select a particular default icon, a common theme for all their icons (such as spiders, or a particular actress, as an example), or a set of icons that have the user's name on them. The icons become a part of someone's persona and a visual way others can recognize them.
Icons as Communication
In 2004 sophia_helix wrote: "Icons are: - Easy to make - Easy to borrow - Easy to modify - Easy to see, which makes them perfect weapons and tools for people with lots of time, lots of wit, and/or lots of grudges. In other words, 99% of us!"
Icons are used as an additional layer of text to one's LiveJournal/Dreamwidth comments by many people. They can be used for expressing sarcasm/mood, "matching" icons, replying with just an icon and a textless comment, etc. The same comment with a different icon can have a very different tone. This conflicts slightly with the use of icons for identification, and also causes problems for people with certain disabilities who cannot process the information from the icon. There is a movement to counteract the ableism inherent in using icons by using descriptive icon alt text. Dreamwidth, notably, was one of the first LJ clones to give this function, and there have been guides on how to write correct and helpful alt text for icons..
- (icon as statement of views on fannish controversies?)
- (icon threads)
Icons as Art
In 2004 sophia_helix wrote: "I find the development of a new element in the fannish economy-- the use of icons -- to be really kinda cool. It opens up the world of fan art to those who couldn't go to cons to see the art displays and zines."
Icons as Squee
A not-uncommon response to a fannishly happy-making episode of a fannish show, is a sudden set of 10, 20 or 30 icons, all from that single episode, made available to other watchers of the show.
Visual memes sweep through icons similarly to other memes. For example, in the weeks after Aretha Franklin's hat wowed the world at US President Obama's inauguration, hundreds (thousands?) of icons were modified to add her hat, like the following icon of Lafayette from True Blood made by angedesoir. At Christmas time, icons are modified to add Santa hats and other winter iconography. In early 2011, Sherlockbbc versions of the reborn British KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON posters are suddenly popular.
Text on Icons are often meme-related as well.
- (different icon-making aesthetics, trends)
Etiquette and Controversy
Some sites have specific rules about the content permissible in icons. Some may specify that content may not include graphic violence, sex, or nudity. Nipplegate was a notable Livejournal wank involving icon content requirements.
(icon etiquette controversy: crediting icon creator, crediting original artist, "stealing," "ganking," altering, making icons from fanart, etc.)
Icon communities are abundant on sites like LiveJournal, where it is common for any medium-sized fandom to have at least one community for sharing icons. Communities also exist for genres, pairings, characters, certain themes and subject matter. These communities may be open to posting any icons that suit the community's guidelines or they may offer different challenges to icon makers.
Aside from Icontests, which are formal challenges/contest which tend to include time restrictions, non-contest oriented communities may also offer certain restrictions. For example, smallbatchicons limits the numbers of icons that can be included in each post. "Much like how the restriction of a hundred words can turn a drabble into a work of art, so our theory is that a posting limit of five icons makes the selected images shine....Please keep your post restricted to one theme. That theme can be an actor or a show, an emotion, a color, a season... whatever you fancy."
See List of Icon Communities for communities by fandom.
Communities also exist to perform a variety of icon-related functions, such as:
- Tutorials and Assistance
- Getting the Picture: An Exploration of LiveJournal Icons, essay by Kass (2003)
- Class presentation on icons, PRESENTATION to FOLKLORE Class by yourlibrarian (2004)
- GIP and icon deletion thoughts; archive link by jane davit (2005)
- Icons and individuality; archive link by norwich36 (2006)
- Give myself a shake; archive link by painless_j (2006)
Icon Making Sites
While many people create icons using image-editing software, it's also possible to create basic icons using icon-making sites freely available on the web. Some of these include:
- Icon Maker (works from an image you upload)
- Abi Station (Otaku, Portrait Avatar, Portrait Illustration, Portrait Icon: creates a drawing for you based on specs you choose)
Available numbers of icons on Livejournal-type services
Different services start from different bases, and at both LiveJournal and Dreamwidth the maximum numbers have changed over time. For example:
- OpenId: 15
- Free: 15
- Paid: 100
- Premium/Seed: 250
- Basic: 150
- Paid: 250
- Permanent: 300
- Early Contributor (no longer available): 350
- Free Patient: 100
- Self-committed (Paid): 250
- Permanent: 300
- Early Inmate (no longer available): 150
- Basic (free, no ads): 6
- Plus (free, but allowing ads to be shown): 15
- Paid: 30, plus the ability to buy more directly, up to 100, not including "loyalty userpics" that are granted as extra features for having accumulated a certain amount of paid time
- Permanent: 197
- Free (not usually available): 10
- Basic (Paid): 500
- Premium: 1,000
- three years, three months, and 1,188 entries later, posted to livejournal, 2004. Archive page one
- Dreamwidth, What are Dreamwidth's new features? Accessed March 22, 2011.
- Dreamwidth, What is the "Description" field for?. Accessed March 22, 2011.