Regular Twitter users are likely to have experienced the anticipatory glow of a notification, signalling the start of an illuminating conversation in which conflicting points of view are debated calmly and politely, or maybe the birth of a new friendship, or a clever bon mot that makes you chuckle quietly to yourself for the rest of the day. Or perhaps an apoplectic egg is screaming at you. “CLEARLY you don’t AGREE with DEMOCRACY!!1!” it says, then says it again, in a slightly different way, for the next 12 hours.
But the Twitter egg has finally cracked. Over the past few years, the default profile picture – which was introduced in 2010 as a way to illustrate that a new user was about to “hatch” – has become visual shorthand for trolls, bots and fury. It has now been replaced by a shadowy head and shoulders, which is supposed to feel more temporary. At least you’ll be able to imagine that it’s an actual human being behind terrifying conspiracy theories about fluoride, rather than your breakfast.
Now that the pressure is on for angry people to get their red faces and popping veins out into the open, what is the key to getting your profile picture right? Olly Osborne, head of social media for Vice in Europe, says it is all about keeping it simple. “It should be close enough to work on mobile, and avoid other people – just focus on yourself, otherwise it’s too busy.” He is also in favour of the direct gaze. “Forward-facing eye contact will grab the attention of the person who is scrolling.”
There is a group of people, however, who know even more about the internet than people whose job it is to know about the internet: teenagers. “I like something that makes you look fun,” says Jack, 18. “Smiling is important, and more natural shots are better, because when you look directly into the camera it can come across as a bit intimidating.” Emi, 16, says she goes for a similarly non-stern approach. “Mine are always dumb. I like trying to make them funny. I like it when people take the piss out of themselves and don’t take themselves too seriously.”