Why it’s important to update your profile picture

If you use social media at all, for personal or business reasons, it's not a bad idea to update your profile pictures at the beginning of a new year. From a personal and social perspective, having an updated profile picture indicates to others that you're active with social media. From a professional or business perspective, it sends the message that you're current with technology, and if you're on the job market, it can help reinforce the picture you're trying to paint of yourself to prospective employers – if you take a little bit of time to do it the right way.

Have you ever noticed that people who have an updated, professional, and consistent profile picture seem more organised than those who don't? These days, the social media profile picture is equivalent to what an appropriate job interview outfit was 20 years ago. Appearances can speak volumes.

To have an organised looking profile picture, you need an organised approach to putting it in place.

Here are some tips for updating your online photo. But first, a few more words on why the profile picture is an integral and very important part of your online life that deserves the same attention to organisation as your files, folders, and other data.

Why profile pictures are important

It helps to take a moment to think about the purpose of the online profile picture before you change yours. One is to help other people to identify you. Another is to help you express yourself… and to help others to develop the right impression of you.

Don't worry too much about the identity of these other people; assume it's everyone, from your professors, to your students, to your present and future bosses, to your investment broker. The point is, your friends and family only make up a small amount of the people who may be looking for you online. And, a lot of the time, you should want people to be able to find you, especially if you're on the hunt for a job.

One trick is to use the same image consistently across many sites, which helps people recognise you and build that full image of you I mentioned earlier. If a potential employer is looking for you online and sees the same photo of you on your blog that she sees on a professional or academic site related to your field of work, it confirms that you're active in your field.

If, like me, you have a common first and last name, your image goes a long way towards confirming who you are. Just as your name should be consistent (middle initial, maiden name used, etc.) in the professional world, your image should be, too. You have control over the images you put online of yourself, so you might as well use them to your benefit. Using the same image over and over gives you that control. The more people see that image – the one you choose – the less they will pay attention to the ones your friends or other organisations post. Speaking of trust, remember some basic psychology when picking a photo to use. A smiling face in good lighting will emanate trustworthiness and confidence (I’ll discuss this more below).

1. Set aside time

Set aside a few hours here and there to tackle this task. Consider the following before making an estimate of the time it will take to fully update all your profile pictures:

  • How many sites and services do you use regularly that have a space for a profile picture (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn)?
  • What sites and services that you don't use regularly but with which you have an account would be worth updating, too (e.g. job sites specific to your field, memberships of societies, university organisations, other clubs)?
  • Do you have a current photo from the past 12 months that you will use, or do you need to shoot a new one? Set aside at least an hour to take a new photo. Hopefully it won't take that long, but an hour will give you time to account for lighting problems, issues with wardrobe and prop choices, friends running late, etc. Sometimes you can't tell what's going to work until you see a couple of demo shots.

2. Taking or choosing a photo

When it comes time to shoot a new photo or choose one from among some existing shots, you may want to rely on a friend's judgment. It's tough for a lot of people to choose a photograph that genuinely looks like them in real life. We can get wrapped up trying to find the perfect image that we think flatters us; our friends may be better at making an objective call about which image actually looks like us.

A friend can also come in handy if you have to take a new photo. If you prefer a solo photo shoot, use the timer on your camera and set it on a flat and steady surface, like a stack of books on a table, if you don't have a tripod. Do not hold the camera at arm's length and point it at yourself. Just don't.

Take a lot of photos – like 30 or 40 – before you pick one. It might take more than 50 before you get one shot you like. Be patient during this step, and bear in mind that it will be worth it in the long run. You'll be getting a lot of use out of one image. Remember, this is a project in organisation as much as it is about taking a pretty picture.

You'll also want a photo that genuinely reflects who you are and shows your best qualities. Your facial expression will do most of the talking here, but you can also use props, wardrobe choices, and scenery to your advantage. For example, if you wear glasses daily, leave them on for the photo. If you're known by your colleagues as "the guy who lives in Alaska," shoot outdoors with the landscape visible. If you're known for having a very business-like demeanour and that's how you want others to see you, take a straight headshot with a solid colour background.

So, in summary, pick a photo that:

  • Looks like you in real life
  • Genuinely reflects who you are
  • Highlights your best qualities
  • Is the best photo from a selection of at least 30.

3. File names and image editing

When you've got your shot, upload it to your computer and name it intelligently, using your name, the year, a descriptor, and some combination of letters that indicates it's the original file, like "2014-Duffy-headshot-original." I like to use the two-digit month and year and the abbreviation "orig" as in "1401-Duffy-photo-orig."

Another file naming system you might want to use is to put the dimensions in the file name. The important thing is to name the file in a way that lets you identify what it is quickly, or search for it if you misplace it.

Many social media sites use square dimensions for their profile pictures. You don't need expensive software to get the image to the size and dimensions you need. Some sites automatically shrink the picture or provide a viewfinder so you can drag the image around and crop it how you want it. I still think it's a good idea to make a "medium" and "small" version of the file, just to keep on hand so that when you have to upload a new image, you have a few options ready.

Finally, save backup copies of the file. I like to save the small and medium versions to a cloud-based service, like Dropbox, Google Drive or Evernote, so I can access them virtually anytime, anywhere. (Hopefully you back up your files regularly anyway, so the only new tip here is to put a copy somewhere that's universally accessible.)

How often should you change your profile picture?

While I strongly advocate updating your profile pictures to 1) be more consistent across sites, 2) genuinely reflect who you are, and 3) highlight some of your best qualities, a follow-up question might be: How often should I update my profile photos?

How often you change your image is ultimately up to you, and everyone will have some personal factors that will make the timing unique for them. But you don't want to change the image too often, or else you'll sacrifice consistency and "branding," and you don't want change too infrequently, or else you'll eventually have a picture that no longer looks like you.

As a very loose rule of thumb, I would say that changing your profile picture more than once every three months is too often, and less than once every two years is too seldom. You might also experiment with swapping out your profile picture from time to time to highlight something that's happened – a trip to the Taj Mahal, the birth of a child, St. Patrick's Day, finishing your first marathon – and then reverting back to your "branded" image a few days later. Swapping the picture for a limited time can help very energetic social butterflies stay happy, while also maintaining some consistency.

New year, new you

A new year marks a perfect time to update your profile picture – it sends the message that you're putting your best foot forward starting now.

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