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The case for pictures next to usernames on Hacker News
55 points by epi0Bauqu on May 28, 2008 | hide | past | web | favorite | 83 comments
I’ve been using this site for a while now, and though I do recognize some usernames, I only have a vague sense of personalities for very few of them (excluding people I’ve actually met in person). I think the problem is that when I’m reading comments I see the username and the comment, but I don’t really associate them together in order to form a bond over time between that username and those set of comments. Instead, I tend to remember a set of comments and a set of usernames, independently. Am I alone here in this behavior?

In any case, the cities and ambition thread got me thinking about what it would take to make an online community more like an offline one. I think the bulk of it comes down to conversation, of which there are two parts: content and mechanics. The content side seems OK here (for what I’m looking for at least). The mechanics side falls way behind the offline world, however.

Offline we have 3-d conversations using most of our sensory perceptions. Online, a lot of that obviously goes away. Of course there are benefits of being online too, e.g. asynchronous threads, archiving, etc. But the lack of the senses drastically takes away the emotional feel of the offline community.

Pictures next to usernames I believe would be at least a start in the other direction. We would get more of a visual sense for a person. For me at least, I think I would start associating usernames more with their set of comments. And I think that would greatly increase the sense of community gained from the site. I’m sure there are other (low-impact) things one could do as well, but I just haven’t thought of them.

I get it pg, you don’t want to spend your time working on this site (http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=201122), but maybe someone playing around with Arc could make the change and then it could be ported back.

You asked for it...

         /         \
        /           \
       /             \
   /\_/     0    0    \_/\
  |                       |
   \/ \      |_|      / \/
       \             /
        \  \-----/  /
         \         /
            |   |

I can't believe you still sport a late 1980s-style spiky hair cut.


Robert Frost suggested that he could write poem/plays in which all of the characters went unnamed, and that the reader would identify the characters based entirely on tone. This idiosyncratic idea has come true to a degree on the internet: There is an accidental feature in some blogs (I think blogspot [1]) where almost everybody winds up posting as "anonymous". Despite this, you can usually tell in a rough way who is who.

At any rate, I don't think pictures ever add anything.

[1] Because it's a pain, depending on the blogger's settings, to log in.

Maybe it's just me, but I actually do tend to associate usernames with comments, at least for the frequent commenters like edw519.

Personally, the lack of images is a plus for me. It's one of the things I love about HN. That lack of emotional feel towards posters is what keeps postings focused. Take Digg for instance, I think that it's that sense of community that leads to 99% of the comments being of no real benefit at all, because everyone is trying to crack a joke.

Digg comments aren't bad because they have pictures. They are bad because they are from that set of commenters.

If you supposed the set of Hacker News commenters didn't change, I think pictures would clearly be a win. What you seem to be suggesting is that by adding pictures, we would attract bad commenters. I just don't think that is true.

"Digg comments aren't bad because they have pictures. They are bad because they are from that set of commenters."

I think it's as much the social norms as the user base. For example, we have kind of an unspoken humor armistice here. Normally humor is used to demonstrate intelligence. However, it's mutually understood that everyone here is intelligent enough to make the appropriate joke, but that we should refrain because it doesn't really add anything to the conversation or make anyone else any better off.

I agree, I constantly refrain from cracking jokes because I don't want to see this turn into what Reddit has become lately.

I think it should be told somewhere what are the goals of the community and explain that we aim for efficiency, knowledge and insightful conversations more than entertainment. Not because we don't like entertainment but because that's not why we are here.

Agreed. Sorry to all Digg users. This just makes the point further, in my opinion. Once we have these "social norms" established, we should be able to do things with the UI to increase community without degrading the adherence to the social norms.

I think it's better if people make their own portraits with their ideas.

Then why have usernames (displayed) at all? Why is a picture so different than a username in terms of degrading the painting of a "portrait" of ideas? You could drop them altogether or replace them with a random string (generated each page view).

The way the user names are colored, it looks like we barely have them at all: The post text is in black, and the other information is in gray. I frequently find myself reading the text before I read who wrote it... which I think is just fine. It sends the message that the content is more important than the poster.

Leaving usernames out entirely would make it harder to gain reputation which would probably reduce the amount of incoming content. The reputation aspect tied to a name, the cult of personality, is part of what keeps this thing churning.

Imagine watching the NBA on TV with no names on the jerseys and all the faces blurred out. Writing style without names would be (in some but not all cases) like trying to identify players by their shoes, tattoos or morphology (read: mostly freakish tallness).

This is an interesting observation. I don't watch basketball, but usually when I watch sports, I watch for skill, and don't really care who is performing it. If you see a brilliant shot it doesn't matter who did it, so the names and faces might as well be blurred out.

That it would be unpleasant to the watcher if the names and faces were blurred out, implies that the celebrity nature of the activity holds much importance.

Haha, just saying, FWIW, because your comment was interesting.


I would posit that the celebrity nature of professional sports is the biggest contribution to making them becoming huge money-making enterprises in the last few decades. If you made all players anonymous, I would bet money that the enterprise would shrink and become a more local phenomenon.

I can't remember who, but someone observed that (according to them) the reason people will emotionally invest in teams, players, artists etc., instead of just cheering for whoever performs best at any given time, is that they like to bet something. There's a risk if you have a favorite team or player and they might lose, because then you lose: so, there's some excitement to be had not just over the play but also the ultimate result.

How this relates to the present topic I don't know; hell, I'm not even sure this hypothesis is correct. I just think it's interesting.

While I do see the value of having a profile picture, the comparison you draw here doesn't hold. To answer this comment of yours, an avatar and a username are "so different" in the sense that comics and novels are different: they can both tell stories, but the degree of freedom of imagination on the reader's part is larger in the latter case (this is only of minor relevance, but it takes apart your argument).

Two, getting a username is considered a sunk cost, one many are willing to pay, but setting up a picture is an additional cost; some will pay, but I would wager many of us here won't bother. However, once you set up the option, there will be a "ah, they're the ones who like to update their profile pic!" and "ah, they're among those who simply don't care!" Assume many people don't bother, you still need to make do, which is your current situation.

Third, user-selected pictures carry a lot more information than just the usernames, and this information may simply detract from the core of the site, which is the content and discussion. If you treat usernames just as differentiating handles, they currently serve exactly that purpose.

Of course, you will be right to say that pictographs can be more efficiently retrieved from memory here, but the case doesn't seem strong enough to spur investing time into accommodating the functions in the code. I agree with pg above in this thread.

Fine by me. I randomly generated my username with the explicit intent of not being identified.

Hey, you're the guy with the randomly generated user name!!

good luck remembering it.

That's exactly the problem I am describing. They are making their own portraits, but they aren't sticking to their usernames, at least for me. A visual icon would help. It could be small, 25x25 as someone suggested.

Maybe you could write a Greasemonkey script? You could have randomly generated avatars like Miis. Then you could also assign an image for specific posters that you feel are better indicative of their personalities.

That's basically what Gravatar has recently adopted (http://blog.gravatar.com/2008/04/22/identicons-monsterids-an...) for non-users, and it is equal parts tacky and useful.

I'm not sold on the idea of something like this here, but even a very small icon (like 16x16 or smaller--very small) or bullet of color would would make threads easier to keep track of.

Where would you get the images? Just generate them randomly?

The only problem with identicons I have seen is that the algorithm used causes a majority of them to look like swastikas. But that seems like an easy thing to fix. Most of the identicons are quite pretty (including a large number of swastikas), but most people still associate swastikas with naziism.

Not only did the Nazis ruin an ancient symbol, they ruined rotational symmetry.

And they ruined a bunch of debates on the Internet!

Swastikas aside, I don't personally feel they're a good solution. They can be useful in semi-anonymous situations to determine one person from another (or an impostor posing as someone else), but I don't find them even vaguely recognizable from one another in the most case. They're very easily confusable.

I think the human brain is optimized for recognizing faces. Those geometric variations of identicon don't look different enough in my opinion. I like the general idea, though.

If the purpose is -- as you say -- to "start associating usernames more with their set of comments", then random images should suffice. If the purpose is to have a visual item of personal expression added to each post, I suppose you'd need each person to choose one for themselves.

Well, a random image may not suffice for that purpose. I just don't know. Maybe for it to work, it has to be some sort of recognizable image. But random images would at least be worth a shot.

Even if you were to add pictures, the place to do it would be on the user's profile page and not next to the posts.

I disagree, but that would certainly be a good start. I disagree because then I would have to click each time to see it, and that is an extra step. With some small icon on the page, I'd develop the history in an osmosis-like manner.

I agree. I think we can all give links to our blogs, or make a community on facebook. Actually, I am just going to do that and submit a link for those who are interested.

I won't succumb to facebook anytime, soon. Sorry.

25x25 is pretty big. I think it would be clever to make it 15x15 or 10x10...

How about just 1x1? Using the standard RGB color space there are 16,777,216. I doubt HN will have that many users so everyone gets their own color :-)

Your design is not future-proof.

Sure it is, just add another pixel :)

"Look at that 3 pixel noob..."

You could use the user's top bar preferences!

only the elite have the privilege of changing the topbar color.

Only the elite deserves their very own pixel.

(I recently joined the elite - that's why I'm smug.)

...or 10 x 1. Even with only 32 colors per pixel, that's over a quadrillion color combinations.

I think pg's "portrait" was a metaphor.

Of course it was a metaphor, and I continued it. I wasn't being literal. I'm saying if you did look at the set of comments of a person, you would see the "portrait." But that isn't happening, since at least in my mind, over time that set of comments isn't being associated with that username.

The current layout of HN doesn't lend itself to avatars at all, IMHO. They would break up the page in awkward ways. If avatars where implemented they should only be 25x25 or something similarly tiny.

If we added them, I'd say make them 16x16. People could use favicons for their sites (if they so desired).

My suggestion is a little different: I would like to see more history kept than the last 20 or so comments (although search.yc helps a lot here) so that when I come across a new poster I can read their other submissions and comments and get a better feel for how they think based on what else they have written.

"On the Internet, nobody know if you're a dog. So we fixed that problem."

Seriously, if I included a pic, it would be of someone else. It's better for everyone like that, trust me.

no avatars please. For me, HN works well. We dont need the beginnings of yet another wannabe social network.

I would argue for incremental improvements to the interface: iPhone friendly version no more odd page parameters that timeout without a page refresh

Personally, the whole site works better for me without images. I, like most people, make a conscious effort to ignore things like gender and age when I'm reading someone's opinion (here or on any other site). But the fact that I sometimes have to make a CONSCIOUS effort means that there is at least a bit of a pre-existing bias or stereotype based on different demographics. Things like "young people don't have enough experience" or "you can't teach an old dog new tricks" can creep into your interpretation of someone else's opinion without even realizing it. I'd rather know as little as possible about the person behind the comment and just focus on the comment itself.

Think of some of the more memorable opinions from the past. Would your opinion of those comments be different if you knew before reading them that the poster was a 15-year-old girl, a 23-year-old transgender, a 55-year-old male? For a very small few of us, the answer is no. For the large majority of us -- myself included -- the answer is yes. The less information I have about the person, the more I can stick to what is being said.

I can certainly appreciate the arguments for having the image. I just don't think they outweigh the reasons against. I'm not listing all the reasons here, either. I'm just bringing up the main point for me specifically.

I agree that as an option, pictures hold more value than is intuitively understood by most people. I view hacker news as a small community that desires the ability to maintain it's tight focus and not expand too much or too fast (all the "Please block this from showing up on hacker news" posts area good example of the sentiment)

On the web, focus is a HUGE commodity and we are right to desire it. I would argue that a sense of community and a sense of focus go hand in hand, and given that I think optional images could help maintain a sense of community even as our numbers grow larger.

I'm not certain of that. In every focused forum I've frequented, when a sense of community grows, the focus turns inward instead of staying on the stated subject. I think, for instance, that the chans' insistence on anonymous posting and ephemeral content helps keep most of their boards full of posts focused on the board's topic, rather than the poster's reputation.

Good point, however we already have a karma system so we've bought into the reputation argument already.

I prefer text.

MetaFilter ( http://www.metafilter.com/ ) is an amazing demonstration of a cohesive online community that doesn't use images to represent users. MetaFilter users tend to be very familiar with each other (more so than other large online communities I've been in). While I agree images can be good, they certainly don't seem to be essential.

IRC is another example. People build up personalities and tie nicknames to them pretty easily without graphics.. and IRC can get very emotional at times.

I can see real time playing a part in IRC. What do you think metafilter does differently (than here) in order to get its cohesiveness?

Good point and good question. I'm not entirely sure, but perhaps it's a combination of one feature and one trait.

Single threading (as used by MetaFilter) forces / encourages people to take note of nicknames in order to target specific responses, so nicknames become a lot more relevant.

Secondly, discussions tend to roll on and on on MetaFilter, whereas it's uncommon for two people to respond back and forth more than once on HN stories.

You are not alone, Gabriel. Visual association beats textual and this makes sense.

One thing though, the images would increase the bandwidth to the site, and maybe even hamper performance.

On the user side, you could presumably turn them off. As for server performance, Y Combinator should be able it.

I assume you meant "turn them on".

Adding a visually intrusive feature and enabling it by default is not the best thing to do, especially when the understated appearance is the feature of the website.

Really interesting!! yep images are super important. it's the best way to associate people to comments.

there's this site I just discovered this week: dipity.com it looks like the best way to share lots of information on the web right now. surely, wiht sites like this one, the internet could become a very intense social place, for dating and even work, teaming up with peers. when you see time lines that people made themselves, I think you can see their personnality, interests, but also culture and ideology very fast.

Maybe the web will provide us with even better social interfaces than what nature gave us: talking, body langage, clothes and fashion, and talking about your musical preferences etc. all this and much more could take place on the web I think! let's make it happen :DD well for now dipity.com looks pretty exciting add me there I'm "smoothboom" and I just made a time line about memetics.

"For me at least, I think I would start associating usernames more with their set of comments. And I think that would greatly increase the sense of community gained from the site. I’m sure there are other (low-impact) things one could do as well, but I just haven’t thought of them."

if that si true its obv great but: "Think of some of the more memorable opinions from the past. Would your opinion of those comments be different if you knew before reading them that the poster was a 15-year-old girl, a 23-year-old transgender, a 55-year-old male? For a very small few of us, the answer is no. For the large majority of us -- myself included -- the answer is yes. The less information I have about the person, the more I can stick to what is being said."

is a very good point made by rewind.

i personally dont feel a need for it, i like the simplicity of hacker news.

I'm the same way, I'm usually not able to associate a username with a set of posts unless I've either met them in person or seen a picture of them online. That said, I think we'd be losing more than we'd be gaining by adding pictures.

What would we be losing?

Oxytocin-free judgment.

I don't see it. By that token, why display usernames at all?

Because they're useful, but without being particularly salient in any given interaction.

If we start to link personalities to comments then we add bias to this site. If we try to refrain from introducing personalities the users must then focus on ideas, far better for the development of them.

There are two extremes, neither one better than the other:

The proposed extreme is to encourage community via personalization. I personally disagree with this: web sites are typically too big to be communities in a natural sense. What you will get is increased visibility for a small elite of spam-heavy commentators.

The other extreme is 2ch-style anonymity. This is open to mob abuse, but it also discourages powergaming.

The core issue is how to continue scaling the system to match interests when they reach hundreds or thousands for every front-page story. news.yc is getting there already....

Have you seen some of these guys?

Hey -- count your blessings.

(Just kidding!)

Understood. They could be icons. It doesn't really matter if they are actual pictures of faces. It matters that they are unique and visual.

There is one reason I can think of for adding profile pictures: reducing anonymity.

People say a lot of things online that they wouldn't say face-to-face because of anonymity. I'm not sure if profile pictures would be a step towards anonymity, but I think it would be a good experiment.

For example, comments written on a wall on Facebook are much less hostile than comments at YouTube or MySpace. I don't recall seeing the words gay or faggot used at all on Facebook, ever.

Even adding more text info may be a good idea. Eg: pkaler. Vancouver, BC. Smartful Studios Inc.

In my opinion, after the ycombinator rejection letters go out there will be a bunch of people that look very much like goatse commenting on this site.

Yup - should use Gravatar

yeah no pictures...Im real ugly I have been told

By a man named Ash?

"Honey you got reaaaaaal ugly."

A big change would even just be to make the username stand out more. I can identify several popular posters on metafilter simply because the name is right there, in a bright colour / bold font directly underneath their posts.

No. Please, no.

i disagree on a pure simplicity view.

I like the fact i can concentrate on the article than on the author or picture or his/her CV (logical trend when you start adding a lot of info about users)

but frankly its the simplicity equation.

Eventually this will just turn back into a message board software.


How about a Twitter group that actually follows back? It would be nice to see what HN readers are up to at a glance, and Twitter has pics.

If nobody else wants to do it, and there is interest, I could set it up. I have no autofollow script yet, but I would ask Twitter support to enable it.

Edit: I already follow @newsycombinator, so if that would add autofollow it would be great ;-)

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