Twitter has changed the default profile picture for new accounts from an egg on one of seven different background colors to what they described to Fast Company as a “gumdrop-headed human.” They claim the human is genderless, and that is technically true, but society insists that the default gender is male and for my purposes right now in this blog (and at no other time) — so do I.
Twitter product designer Jeremy Reiss told Fast Company that the goal of the design was to reflect a collection of words. Here it is: “generic, universal, serious, inclusive, unbranded, and temporary... an empty state, essentially.” Yes, these are also words you could use to describe the 2014 film Boyhood.
The new Twitter default profile pic, which was necessary because the old one was so deeply and irrevocably associated with trolls and bots and all the other seedy, unnecessary parts of Twitter, is a small gray man. I can’t wait for him to call me a “feminazi” in my mentions.
On the surface, the redesign is logical and pretty funny. What has an actual egg ever done to me? Nothing that I can recall right now. What has an anonymous man veiled in shadow, protected by the internet’s capacity to keep them at a remove from responsibility, ever done to me? Hmm, do you want the stats for just today? One time I wrote about a Mark Wahlberg movie unfavorably and a boy told me that I deserved to have my legs blown off. You can see already how this redesign makes more sense.
However, I think we can also already see that Twitter will probably end up in an endless cycle of redesigning its default profile image as each new image becomes reflexively associated with abuse.
Twitter claims, pretty absurdly, that the gray color was chosen to make photo-less accounts less eye-catching: “Because of its coloring, the new profile photo also gives less prominence to accounts with a default profile photo.” They’re aware that “Twitter eggs” is a term that has become basically synonymous with “trolls,” or they wouldn’t boast about redesigning the generic icon in a way that negatively impacts accounts’ visibility. Obviously the fact that the avatars are gray will probably do very little to make words tweeted by anonymous accounts less visible, and this claim smacks of the same ridiculousness as rearranging some paragraphs in the Terms of Service and calling it a major anti-harassment effort.
It’s also similar to what Sarah Jeong detailed for Motherboard yesterday when Twitter implemented a change that hides the @ and user handle from reply chains:
“The @-handle is one of Twitter's most recognizable brands, a kind of trademark if you will. When people identify their Twitter handles outside of Twitter, they precede it with a @. You don't have to add, "I'm @sarahjeong on Twitter," or "Twitter: @sarahjeong." You could, but you don't have to. A Twitter user can see that, and automatically know it's a Twitter handle.”
The decision to remove the handle feels misguided, the result of a flawed understanding of the way that people use the platform and of the language that’s sprung up there. Destroying the language of the “egg” takes away one of the major shorthands that users have for calling out abuse (What would we call this new thing? “Twitter gumdrop head?” “Twitter gray blob guy?”) — it’s a decision made by purporting to understand trolls, while ignoring the rest of Twitter’s users. Over time the image itself will take on the same connotation as the egg, but Twitter will likely succeed in dismantling the shared cultural meaning of an important term.
Beyond a fresh coat of paint, Twitter just wants to remove a common way of discussing online trolls from the lexicon. Wouldn’t it be nice for Twitter and the Twitter brand if “Twitter eggs” meant nothing?