Cyberclinic

A friend of mine recently chose to represent himself on the internet with an image of his head superimposed onto the lingerie-clad body of the woman on the front cover of Roxy Music's eponymous debut album, What does this say about him? Not a great deal, other than he quite likes Roxy Music, has adequate Photoshop skills and has a bit too much time on his hands. But whenever we sign up to a website that claims to "connect people", we're asked to upload a picture, which we then crop, resize and display to the world as our representative in cyberspace. According to a slightly sarcastic blog post this week at www.fastcompany.com (which describes itself as "charting the evolution of business through a unique focus on the most creative individuals sparking change in the marketplace" – it means nothing to me either) this is creating a "new renaissance in portraiture", a "complex visual dialogue" between us all.

Certainly, these little avatars and userpics become an intrinsic part of our online personality – just as much as our tendency to pursue arguments about conspiracy theories, or over-relying on the word LOL to express mild amusement. The blog post uses a neat infographic to categorise the photos we proudly upload, and anyone who's spent even the most cursory amount of time on Facebook et al will recognise their list of clichéd shots. As a slightly overweight chap, I'm certainly familiar with the "view from above at a 45-degree angle to the head" snap, which immediately knocks a stone or so off the weight of the subject. And as a balding man, I'm also familiar with picture-cropping in order to remove the top 15 per cent of the head – but variations on these strategies are employed by anyone with slight hangups about their appearance. The only people prepared to make themselves look deliberately awful in avatars tend to be the supremely beautiful and fantastically confident.

Other sweeping generalisations: those depicted in blissful happiness with a partner are either in the initial throes of a relationship or attempting to cover up its cataclysmic breakdown; joyful parents will represent themselves with pictures of their offspring, while proud pet owners substitute children for cats, dogs or cockatiels. Any number of cod-psychological analyses could be done of people who picture themselves bungee jumping, or drunk, or bungee jumping while drunk, or standing next to Loyd Grossman. And then there's the peculiarly female trait of using a picture of yourself laughing heartily with a group of other women, leaving viewers wondering firstly what the joke is, and secondly which of the crowd is the person in question.

As the now-famous phrase goes: on the internet no one knows you're a dog. You can be who you want to be – as demonstrated by the innumerable people who represent themselves using pictures of owls, or indeed Roxy Music album covers. But our enthusiasm for reinventing ourselves may not be that strong; a recent study showed that the avatars we create to represent ourselves in virtual worlds like Second Life bear a remarkable correlation with our real-life selves. My current Twitter avatar, at least until the Schulz estate orders me to remove it, is me as Charlie Brown; I don't have as much bad luck as he does, though. I just enjoy the sympathy.



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"I never got that email," runs a common excuse – usually uttered by someone who did receive the email, but figured that blaming technology would be easier than confessing to disorganisation and general uselessness. But users of Google's Gmail service now have the opportunity to catch serial email-receiving-deniers at their own game with a third-party service called EmailOracle. After installing it as a browser plug-in, you can choose to "track" an email each time you compose one. This is done by placing an image link into the body of the email; a remote server then senses if that image has been viewed, and thus that the email has been opened.

Online marketing types have used this trick for years in order to get accurate statistics for the percentage of emails they send out, versus the number that are viewed, versus the number that generate sales. But this is the first such service dedicated to slightly paranoid people like myself. Because instead of thinking "Oh, they haven't opened the email yet," we can now think, "They opened that email four hours ago – why won't they reply?" That kind of anxiety is well worth $9.95 a month for a basic account, I think.

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