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Facebook profile pictures are more culturally important than you may know

Sociology of Facebook

From a sociological perspective, it is interesting to watch the culture of Facebook change and we are seeing a shift in two forms- first, the younger generation has dumped MySpace for Facebook, so all Facebook stats are being impacted by the behavior of our children and secondly, it has gone mainstream and users over 18 have gotten over the hurdle of learning how to use the social network.

One form of analyzing the culture having gone mainstream is the world of profile pictures- how they are used, in what volume are they used and most importantly for this story, at what pace are they being adopted? As recent as 2009 you could get on Facebook and it wouldn’t be uncommon for people to have not uploaded a profile picture or to have a tiny picture of them with sunglasses on (i.e. incognito).

Fast forward to 2011

Fast forward to 2011 and according to, one in ten photos on the Facebook site consist of pictures dedicated to profile pictures.

Pixable ponders, “Why are we uploading profile photos more often every year? Perhaps, we recognize that having an online presence is now the norm and maintaining it is important. The internet after all has become an integral part of many of our lives, and Facebook is only becoming a more primary channel of communication – a channel that ties every message to an online representation of ourselves (our profile page).”

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We would add that because smartphones now come with extremely powerful cameras, amateur photography is common and America sees major events not in person with their own eyes but in person with their smartphone as their lens. Turn on cable news and watch President Obama at any rally and see hundreds of people holding up their personal impromptu news camera in the form of their smartphone- they’re not watching him with their own eyes in so many cases, they’re watching through their cameras.

With this rise in smartphone capabilities and Facebook having gone mainstream, profile pictures serve as a true identity in 2011, even versus 2007. People understand what a profile picture is and have come to expect other users to have realistic and current (very current) profile pictures, especially given the likelihood of their attending an event recently in which they probably took pictures with their smartphones.

500,000 users studied studied its half million user database to reveal the following:

Surprising data

Users now download profile pictures three times more often than in 2006 which is no surprise, but it is intriguing that profile pictures receive an average of three likes and two comments. It stands to reason that in a circle of legitimate friends rather than strangers (which is the purpose for the average Facebook user rather than business user), affirmation is sought and obtained via profile pictures.

The average Facebook profile has 26 profile pictures- does that sound on par with what you have? Users are updating not only for fun (like a teen) but when there are appearance changes (hairstyles, weight loss) or a photo worthy of showing off (a picture with a celebrity or if you’re a teen, a new picture of you doing duck lips).

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The takeaway: the mainstream culture of Facebook is no longer to have a business-card-esque standard headshot but pictures that evolve with you. They age with you every year, they show what you’ve been up to and what changes you’re going through because Facebook has become the dominant social network that the majority of America has flocked to and users are presenting their real lives there which includes the evolution of their appearance. Is your profile picture an inaccurate headshot from 2001? Facebook culture dictates you update it to depict the real version of you, not the idealized version of you.

Bonus: here is a fantastic image to give you an idea of what the “idealized version of people looks like.

Lani is the COO and News Director at The American Genius, has co-authored a book, co-founded BASHH, Austin Digital Jobs, Remote Digital Jobs, and is a seasoned business writer and editorialist with a penchant for the irreverent.


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