Welcome to Miss Type, a column about etiquette in the digital age. This week: What should you use for your Twitter profile picture?
As a journalist, I am constantly forced to confront how absurd it is that Twitter — an unprofitable platform initially designed as a place to talk about different kinds of sandwiches — has become the nexus of all my personal and professional aspirations. I made an account as a teen in a high school computer lab, and I spent the next 12 years somehow leveraging the app into freelance assignments, networking opportunities, weird feuds, and first dates. I did not know what I was getting myself into, and now here we are.
Anyone who has ended up in a position where Twitter plays an outsize role in their life knows that, given the stakes involved, there is a vulnerability to crafting your Twitter profile. After all, Twitter is a place for book deals and new job announcements, as well as complaints about how expensive cherries are getting at the supermarket. Those of us who are professionally bound to the site and the opportunities it can offer need to constantly demonstrate our innate value to anyone who might decide to give us a lot of money, while also not appearing like a total lunatic. How are you supposed to navigate such a paradox?
Here’s a trade secret: Once you have your Twitter avatar figured out, everything else falls into place.
There are countless options you could go with to represent yourself and all your aspirations on Twitter. My least favorite among my peers are the blurry iPhone photos of a television showing some three-minute MSNBC segment that the person guested on. It is the single most unflattering photo anyone can share of themselves — an aesthetically oppressive meta-selfie — draped in the sort of thirsty neediness that makes you red meat for the site’s most merciless shitposters.
So what kind of Twitter avis would I advise my fellow anxious posters to upload? I’ve outlined a handful of different vibes you can project with your account, along with the imagery necessary to make that performance sing:
For the grown-up who goes to work for a living: The headshot snapped by whichever media company is currently paying you
If you are employed at a media organization, a digital consulting firm, or, really, any startup that prides itself on being very online, there is a good chance that you've been christened with an official photo shoot, which is a devious strategy by upper management to play to employees’ vanity in lieu of giving them raises. You know the kind of tasteful, company-endorsed portraits that I’m talking about: The New Yorker doodles, the Wall Street Journal portraits, whatever The Verge does that makes its staff look like they're orbiting the rings of Saturn. These headshots make you look eminently creditable, reliable, and rich; they let us know that you are occasionally invited to speak on television, without resorting to the too-obvious gaucheness of the blurry MSNBC snapshot.
Once you have obtained one of these, you should milk it for all it’s worth. I have a friend who hasn’t worked at GQ in like two years, but he’s still rolling with his grayscale Condé Nast portrait. I’m not a company man, but if I were, I’d be doing the exact same thing.
For the internet legend who would not hesitate to make someone cry: A random piece of clipart
There is nothing on Twitter I fear more than someone with a lot of followers, a blank bio, and an image of, like, a cartoon hula hoop set as their profile picture. To participate on Twitter is to be vulnerable to the most desultory burns imaginable, engineered by people who will forever be cooler, terser, and less forgiving than you. These are their national colors. For every furrow-browed, all-too-serious politics editor live-tweeting the Jan. 6 hearings, there must be at least one pseudonymous force of nature in the replies, absolutely cooking their shit, probably under the guise of a garden gnome. It’s a Batman and Joker situation. BuzzFeed’s Katie Notopoulos is probably the archetypal example of this. She uses her preferred avi, a lo-fi animation of shimmering party balloons, like a skull and crossbones. It takes countless viral burns to attain the status of mythical shitposter, but if you want a head start on the process, it can’t hurt to start scrolling through Shutterstock for your generic-ass calling card.
For those who are famous in ways that normal people could not possibly understand: Whatever random bullshit is saved to your phone
Nate Silver’s Twitter avi is a photo of a grassy path, under a bright summer sky, in between two fields of… some type of grain? I have no idea. Google’s reverse-image search doesn’t reveal any information, and the image has never come up in any of Silver’s writings about numbers and basketball and why everyone is wrong, unless they are right, about everything going on in politics and the economy. I think that’s the point. Silver has entered a rarefied sphere, alongside millionaire YouTubers, MCU actors, and Kool-Aid-hair gamers, where no self-promotion or further explanation is necessary. We need to know about them, they don’t need to know about us. It’s why Kevin Durant is currently sporting an old Tangled meme on his account during his daily volleys with various ESPN pundits — because the most devastating riposte in any of Twitter’s bitter entanglements is a reminder of who's the most important person in the room.
Not everyone can replicate this persona. You would first need to become extremely successful in your chosen field, before returning to the platform as a smug, frequently aggrieved skeptic. It helps to be a uniquely thin-skinned man, as most of these people are. (Apropos of nothing, Bill Simmons’s avatar is of Manny Ramirez hitting a home run.) But honestly, if you do achieve this level of fame, you're much better off just taking the Jay-Z approach: tweeting about twice a year.
For those who are mostly comfortable with their lot in life, without any real upwardly mobile aspirations: A candid photo you might have used on your Facebook profile in 2008
This is basically what I do. My current Twitter avi is a picture snapped by my dad in February of 2020, shortly before I ceased to be photogenic altogether. I can’t really recall my decision to use it as my internet visage, which is exactly the point. I thought my outfit was good, and it was taken at enough of a distance to not divulge any identifying details. That’s it! Nobody who encounters that image in the wild will mistake me for someone who is capable of sending a life-changing email, or snagging a CNN pundit seat, or siccing a terrifying horde of anons on someone for the slightest perceived slight. No, mine is just another face bobbing around the boiling seas of social media, without any real sense of why I keep coming back. This is the category that applies to most people, especially those of you who find everything that you’ve read here utterly inexplicable. Please know that you’ve already won. Go ahead — use a photo of yourself at a bar with friends, or perhaps from that summer you went to Rome. That’s what the internet was made for.
Luke Winkie is a writer in Brooklyn.