The headfake


Have you ever had something like this happen to you?

You correspond with someone online for weeks, maybe months.  Then finally it turns out that the two of you will be in the same place at the same time, e.g. an industry conference.  You happen to notice a familiar name on a conference badge among the dozens passing by in the hallway and it’s your online buddy.

But you didn’t recognize him/her because…they look nothing like their avatar picture.

Well.  I’ve decided on an appropriate term to describe this phenomenon:  the headfake.

Definition:  Headfake, noun.  A situation in which you are familiar with a person’s avatar picture, which gives you an inaccurate idea of how that person appears in real life.

I know I’ve headfaked people myself; at SXSW this year, someone told me I look a lot older in my picture than I really am.  Another said that I’m a lot taller in real life than my picture would indicate.  (I think these might indicate that I need a better avatar picture.)

So…ever been headfaked?  Let us know in the comments, anonymity will be honored!

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  1. Are you kidding me? I am a real estate agent. I work in the single most headfake saturated industry in the world. The estimate is that most of the pictures were taken 20 lbs and 20 years ago. I agree. I have almost daily “holy crap that was so-in-so” moments. 🙂

    Naturally, I keep my picture updated.

  2. I have never been headfaked, but I think I would like to be. I want people to say something like, “Wow, you are much better looking, cooler and smarter than your avatar indicates!”


  3. The first tweet up I ever attended I got some severe headfakes. So severe in fact that I changed my avatar immediately. It’s not worth going to a networking event (and utilizing Twitter as an in) if no one even knows who you are. Regardless of how many times you have talked to them.

  4. I’ll admit – I’m used to seeing your avatar then saw some pics of some friends and yourself at SXSW and thought you looked completely different than in the av. Stop headfaking me! 😉

  5. I have simpson-ised myself for the web. I very rarely use a real picture as I don’t want the local looney recognising me on the street, I only provide a pic if I have been corresponding for a while and feel it is required…

  6. Love the term headfake! I’ve certainly headfaked people and been headfaked in turn.

    The ones that crack me up are “I thought you were taller/shorter.” Other than camera angle, what height cues does a 300 x 300 pixel postage-stamp sized headshot give?

    On the other hand, leaning forward into the camera in an avatar pic seems to be a fairly reliable indicator of being generously proportioned.

  7. Ha. In psychometrics, “face validity” is a term that’s used to describe whether a test item/inventory appears to measure what it’s supposed to be measuring. Sort of funny when applied to avatars – do they appear to stand for who they really are? Surprisingly, there’s some good research on perceptions of online profiles and the accuracy of identity claims (despite some self-enhancement). Check out:–Gosling-Gaddis-Vazire.pdf

  8. On the other hand, some people are so used to the picture of me with a mohawk from five years ago that if I changed it, no one would recognize me online. It’s almost like a logo now. And it says something about me that it was my hairstyle for a year (and again for a shorter time).

    Should I change to something more business like and less distinctive, or at least something that makes it easier to recognize me from the photo if you don’t already know me?

  9. Peter,

    I think I head fake anyone that ever sees me because camera’s are incapable of capturing my handsomeness.

    It’s a curse that I unfortunately have to live with for right now.


  10. See, that’s why I use my illustrated “Disneyfied” avatar so much of the time. Nobody thinks I’m actually a cartoon character. At least, I hope nobody thinks that…

  11. I was led to believe that David Armano had a cowboy hat surgically attached to his head. When I saw him without one, I became confused. And later felt betrayed and angry. But I’m over it now.

  12. I love headfaking! It’s the best. and I especially love changing my profile pic tons with pictures that look like totally different versions of me. 🙂 HAHA! but with that said … you make a valid point and I should probably pick an avatar that is more appropriate.

  13. I’m an identical twin who has been mistaken for my brother (and vice-versa) all my life. Our professional lives overlap a little and we live in the same city so we are used to strangers coming up to us and starting conversations. We gently introduce ourselves halfway through (generally to great mirth). The strange thing is we do not look at all alike. It is our facial expressions, posture and voices that confuse.

    Our avatars are very different. So it is inevitable that no one has noticed we are twins from our social media activities – even though our online communities overlap at the fringes. And to be honest, I miss it. My brother and myself often complain about people confusing us but we secretly love it. In face-to-face contact, it provides an unbeatable social lubricant. How do you replicate that quality online?

    So “headfake” has one more definition for twins: to be authentic, do I look like myself AND do I look enough like my twin to be mistaken for him?

    @Russ Somers Re: your comment about “taller/shorter”. I crack up when people discover that I am a twin for the first time and say “I never knew you were a twin” as if they’ve overlooked a genetic void that’s been walking beside me all those years.

  14. Up until last October, I had blond hair and decided to dye it back to my natural (dark brown) I did not, however, change my Twitter pic right away, simply because I was waiting to find a twitter-worthy replacement. It didn’t really bother me, I made some good jokes about it. “I’m blond online so I can have more fun… ”

    Though at SXSW I got so frustrated at people making comments about the change that I took a web cam shot in my hotel (which is still my current photo) I haven’t updated the rest of my social networks, but it’s on my brain…As soon as I find a decent replacement (ironically I’ll probably decide to change my hair color again after I update all my photos)`

  15. helped commoditize the headfake many moons ago. It was almost a lock that early web profile pics were from the last day of a beach vacation when he/she was tan, 10 years younger, and 10 lbs. lighter – it was probably the best picture ever taken of the subject and used over and over again for headshot opportunities.

    I think phototagging (a la facebook) is putting a serious crimp on the art of headfaking. Anyone can tag you in a photo (especially the one with you and your seven double chins) without your consent. My female friends seem to take a perverse pleasure in cherrypicking great photos of themselves and tagging everyone in them (even if they know the other people look awful).

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