I've said before that to truly participate in public life, we must do so as ourselves, with our identities revealed.  Online discussions are now a part of the public sphere, and when used well, can bring people together in ways that complement and enhance real-world community.

A related trend I'm appreciating is the increasing number of tools available to help make online conversations more personalized.  A particular tool I'd like to encourage you to start using right now is that of a Gravatar - a "globally recognized avatar" - which displays an image of your choosing (sometimes a photo of you) next to your contributions to online conversations.

Here are 4 reasons why you should:

  1. If you're someone who participates in online discussions (responding to blog comments, adding forum posts, etc.), uploading your gravatar image is a way of creating a consistent and personalized online identity across all of the sites you visit.  Just sign up, upload your image, and you're done.
  2. If you're a content publisher (blogger, forum administrator, chat room host), using gravatars gives your participants the ability to express their identity beyond just text characters on a page or a clever nickname.  This strengthens your online community, adds some color and flare, and is a free, easy way to do it.  Some people are even using them on technical conference badges.
  3. Gravatars are secure and consolidated - gravatar owners aren't able to tell when you make use of their images, and you can always change or remove your image later if you decide you don't want it public.  The images are hosted on the Gravatar.com server, so a change in that one place instantly takes effect on any site where you've contributed.
  4. Gravatars are easy to implement - there are plugins available for most known content publishing platforms (e.g. WordPress, Movable Type, Drupal, Joomla) and even some desktop applications (e.g. the Mac OS X Addressbook).  There are reference implementations available for most languages used to build web pages and online applications.  This means that we can leave behind the days of implementing our own profile image management systems, or at least start to come to a better standard about how they should work.

I'm posting below the Gravatars of the last 9 people who commented on this blog.  As of this initial writing, only one of them has uploaded their image, the rest are just the default image - won't you help me make that square (or any comments you might post below) a little more pretty by showing us your smiling mugshot?  (The images below will update as people upload, so check back.)