On August 6, 1991 the World Wide Web was released to the public. By August 7th, people were already looking for ways to use it to connect with others around the world. Chat rooms and primitive webcams flourished in the early years. Avatars, not photographs, were the way that you presented yourself to the world, becoming a major component of one of the web's most popular early chat platforms Palace. As the web evolved, so did culture, and it wasn't long before cyberspace received a major makeover.

Eventually, the anonymity of '90s cyberspace gave way to new social media platforms in the aughts. Friendster may have been first to write the blueprint with their 2002 launch, but it would be Myspace (and, later, Facebook) that perfected the system. An increased importance was placed on image-consciousness, and it was only a few years before terms like the "Myspace pic," "Myspace angle," "mirror photo," "duck face," and "selfie" became ingrained in our social lexicon. While the overt superficiality of these kinds of photos have often been the source of ridicule, their pervasiveness in social media points to a changing climate. Whether or not we'd like to admit it, how we choose to present ourselves in our profile pictures is a multifaceted, conscious decision.

Deep down, we all want to look cool but when is it not cool to try to look cool in your Facebook photo? We talked to style experts, fashion bloggers, marketing professors, publicists, and your average teenager to get to the bottom of our quandary.



Kim Taylor Bennett

Style Producer and Editor, VICE

Whenever I start to think about how everyone projects their highly curated version of themselves onto the world, or how some are attempting to build a "personal brand" as like, a career—because those who do so successfully can accrue tens of thousands of dollars to post a picture on Instagram—it makes my brain melt. It makes me want to commit online suicide and unplug forever. But I can't of course. I'm in too deep.

Facebook was supposed to be a way to connect and keep up-to-date with your buddies, but it's spiraled into something else entirely. Personally, I have 1,252 "friends" on Facebook. Am I trying to keep abreast of the ins and outs of the thousand plus people in my feed? No, because who has that much time in the day! Thus, Facebook has become, like Instagram, a clamor. But there's nothing cool about a clamor. There's nothing cool about shouting too loud.

What's the solution? The perfect balance? I can only speak to how I treat my profile pictures. Looking over the past three years I've noticed I change my profile photo every six-ish months. This is, in part because I'm lazy, but also it's annoying when people bombard you with updated profile pics every week; too much clamoring. Mostly I'll select a profile picture where I'm genuinely excited about what's happening in said photo (meeting Madonna), or I choose a shot where I look like an idiot, or something weird is going on. More than once it's just been the back of my head.

Duckface, pouty pictures are ten a penny, inherently uncool, and cringeworthy in the extreme. I'd rather be a goof. Funny is better. And funny is cool, right? Ugh, I don't know, but I do know that Facebook is supposed to be for your friends, and I don't want to pretend to be cool with my friends, because there's nothing genuine about that.

In 1997, AOL launched its instant messaging service AIM. Users spent more than one million hours a day chatting on their services and in their 19,000 individualized chat rooms.

Washington Post


100 million users

Friendster at its most popular

1.49 billion users

Facebook users as of June 2015, which is over half of the Internet users in the world





Justina Sharp

Teen Fashion & Entertainment Blogger

"Ohmygod Becky, look at her profile picture": Profile photos are the pieces that pull your entire online persona together. On Instagram, it's the one photo of hundreds you’ve chosen to represent yourself. On Facebook, it’s what your family, friends and future employers see and judge. On Twitter, it's where a hundred and forty characters meet a thousand words. In the end, what it looks like comes down to what kind of person you are. In that case, I'd say that it's never really cool to "try to look cool" on your profile photo. It's much more important to look like yourself, whoever you may be.

Facebook every day

A reported 556 million people use Facebook from their smartphone or tablet everyday.

47% of Facebook users claim that the main reason they use the site is to stay connected to their friends’ photos and videos.



Yu Hu

Associate Professor of Marketing at Salem State University

Your profile picture sets up expectations for people who don't know you well. Therefore, if your social postings or sharings are in fact mundane or not that cool, you will seem to them as inauthentic. To a lesser extent, your cool pictures may elicit unnecessary envy from people who know you well. Humans are prone to compare themselves to other people, and they tend to feel bad when others appear to be better, such as someone's leading a cooler life than they are. With all that said, it's necessary to point out that the effects of profile pictures tend to wear off quickly, and people are much more tolerant and forgiving with their friends. In other words, a profile picture is not a big deal on personal social networking site, such as Facebook, however, it is a much bigger deal on professional networks, such as LinkedIn.




Erin Thomas

Fashion and Style Blogger

Personally, I would think twice before changing a profile pic of myself with one of a much beloved, human-friendly lion I’ve just shot with an arrow and then chased down for five hours before shooting and decapitating. Big game hunting is generally well-received only in minute circles, so perhaps it's not the best or most professional choice for a profile pic. I know you paid $50K for this little outing, but it might be more appropriate to save that one for your personal brag book.

I'm also not convinced putting a rainbow filter over your profile picture is the best way to show you support the LGBT community. Frankly, it seems kind of gross and appropriative to put a rainbow over your hetero wedding photo, does it not? How about volunteering at your local LGBT teen center? Maybe donating some money to an organization which helps trans teens in need find food and shelter? Gay marriage is a beautiful thing, but it's not where your support should end. There is so much more work to be done, and I don't think this empty gesture is doing much for anyone.

Lastly, can we put a moratorium on "hot dog legs"? If you're posting a photo of a beachy landscape, we have a pretty good idea that you are, indeed, at the beach. I’m not sure why one's Ball Park Franks need to be in the way of a perfectly well-composed shot of the ocean.

This is you on Facebook

According to a 2012 study by Computers in Human Behavior, people with lower self-esteem tend to have more Facebook friends.

Extroverts publish more photos on Facebook than introverts.



Jeffrey A.

Massachusetts-based teenager, avid social media user

There's no reason to look cool in a photo. Photos are supposed to resemble and signify you as a person. There is no reason to have to be cool at all. People want to be cool on social media only for the reason of showing off to other people of the world. Most of my generation works hard on their personality and appearance just to be cool in front of others. I don't care what people think. All that matters in the end is what I think.

Facebook teens

Facebook has more daily teen users than any social media platform.



Jonny Stanton

Account Manager, Dynamo PR

Twenty-six million people changed their Facebook profile picture to a rainbow flag to celebrate Pride a few weeks ago. But why did they do it? Did they think they could make a change, to make a statement, or because they thought it was cool, and followed the crowd. The campaign was brutally simple and smart, but also highlighted how important the act of changing a profile picture can be, culturally and politically.

Maintaining an online presence in today's society has become part of millions of people's everyday lives, and thanks to the power of Google it's also easy to find out what those millions of people look like, via their Facebook, Twitter, and Linkedin profile pictures. Whether we like it or not, one's image is very much an identity, and social media gives us access to the lives portrayed by a user.

Selfies and gender

A 2015 study shows that there is a higher correlation between narcissism and high selfie-posting in men than there is in women.



Illustration: Yulia Goldman