Putting Faces to Names
By Eric Lin, Tue Sep 16 22:15:00 GMT 2003

In an effort to humanize technology, or maybe just as a form of self expression, faces are replacing names on mobile phones and on the internet.

It all started with a simple concept, we can recognize pictures more easily than we can recognize words. When mobile phones finally started packing color screens, many manufacturers realized that even on a tiny screen, displaying a face or picture with caller ID would make it easier to identify who was calling.

Initially it was difficult to load a caller's picture into the phone. Soon cameras became available as an accessory and then built into phones, further enabling the use of pictures instead of words. Snapping pictures of friends and family for caller ID became simple and commonplace. People also began sharing pictures of themselves on mobile communities, extending the metaphor. They were no longer an alias, they were a face, a name, an actual person. Novel new instances of the self-pic appeared. Joi Ito's faceroll replaced the traditional list of blogging friends' names or websites (a blogroll) with pictures of them. Aiyaa! is a place for people to interact by taking pictures of themselves with different expression or emotion each week.

Sites like Hiptop Nation, Friendster, even Ryze have so popularized the use of a picture as a critical component that new communities can't even begin to form unless they include pictures of their members. The civility of these new communities is often attributed to the fact that members are no longer an anonymous alias, but actual people with faces and names.

If showing people's pictures keeps an online community civil, can it do the same on a more global scale? Yesterday writer Warren Ellis tried to find out who the web, whether desktop or mobile, was made of. For 24 hours he accepted submissions with the following request "The internet is made out of people. Show it your face. Send your webcam/futurephone/othercam self portrait to [me]." It began with pictures of Warren's community, but as the meme (and link) spread around the internet, the variety of portraits expanded, humanizing a cross section of internet users. And this was only over the course of 24 hours with no publicity save for the usual internet linking.

Every week new data comes in revealing how quickly camera phones are proliferating. We can (and do) share pictures of ourselves and others with increasing regularity. Will all these pictures make the world a more human, more civil place, or will we eventually just get lost in the crowd?