When I was a kid in upstate New York during the 80s & 90s, I was trying to figure out who I was, and who I wanted to be. I looked like a product of my two genetic parents, but other than that I was a blank slate, and I took full advantage of this. Wild hair colors at varied lengths, clothing ranging from spandex bicycle shorts to oversized t-shirts and big baggy jeans. All of these decisions were explorations of my own character. It’s difficult to know how you want to be perceived when you don’t yet know who you are.
Fast-forward to 2023– I’m now an adult who knows much more confidently how I feel about the universe around me, and I use this guidance to decorate myself in ways I feel lineup with my fundamental viewpoints on– not just my own life– but existence as a whole. I wear mostly pre-owned clothing with no discernable brand or writing on them, and most of my clothes kinda look the same but have slightly different patterns and coloring. Neutral, usually dark tones and minimal usage of bright coloring or diverse texture is my M.O., and I presume that when people look at me they’re at least somewhat informed about who I am and how I operate.
Not only am I picky about how I’m perceived in real life, but I have strong preferences regarding my online presence, or my profile picture (pfp). My pfp is preferably a picture or illustration of me looking at least a little off camera to the right (stage left), with no loud emotions on my face. I want it to portray not only who I actually am, but how I usually feel, much in the way that I dress myself. I’m not perpetually smiling or laughing, nor am I perpetually sad or angry. I’m usually just, like, sitting around thinking about stuff with a neutral interest. When users on X, Discord, or Telegram interact with me, they’re given a pretty zeroed-out glimpse of my resting state, and any conversation we have will not be colored by emotional output from my pfp. If my pfp is always laughing, and I’m trying to say something serious, this could really get in the way, right?
In the “web3” world of digital collectibles, users wear brands that they either align with or want to– and by wearing I mean using as a profile picture. Pfp projects with 2k, 5k, and 10k+ generative pieces have thousands of members using all roughly the same picture with different elements as a statement about who they are and what they want to be through all interactions they have. They’ll often have different pfps on different forms of social media, and will often make a bunch of dummy accounts with differing pfps for the sake of being perceived (and thereby interacting) differently when convenient.
In the real world, we do this by dressing one way when we go to work, another when on vacation, and more yet when cooking dinner, sitting on the couch, or meeting a friend for coffee. You can wear Polo to work, Tommy to coffee, and Hanes on the couch, and none of those items have to infiltrate the others’ space. Internet life isn’t quite so simple yet, as one would need a few separate accounts to make any sense of this, and the benefits may not line up with the time required to manage. So typically we stick with one pfp per stretch of time and this is how others come to know us. But not everybody wants to show their real face on the internet.
One might stay anonymous for myriad reasons, but by doing so, we feel unattached to our own identity and thereby lack a group, tribe, or category to assign to. And humans love categorizing. So we choose or create groups of stylistically recognizable human-or-anthropomorphized pixel, cartoon, or 3D art and use this to represent who we are and how we operate. A well-chosen pfp can say a lot about what it might be like to interact with the individual wearing it when the right social context is in place.
Just like when a person carries a Gucci bag, we can make certain assumptions about them that have a degree of validity regarding affluence & outlook. The same goes for car brand and style, choice of food and beverage, watch, glasses, and sports paraphernalia. The danger in this is that when the team is doing poorly, the company makes a move with which you disagree, or the automobile manufacturer is deemed incompetent, these statements initially made about your character begin to change– often without your knowledge or intent.
There is inherent danger in defining ourselves using anything that isn’t fully within our control, but when used carefully, it can strengthen our statements and actions in a way we can’t on our own. Thus is the duality of identity. Use at your own risk, and operate with care.
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