Yesterday, the new service Eightbit.me launched; for its first move, the HTML 5 social game changed your Twitter avatar to an 8-bit character image of your own design—without your express permission.
Profile image updates tend to wash over Twitter and Facebook in waves, often tied to solidarity for political causes or tech holidays like Blue Beanie Day in support of Web standards. Like a hashtag imposed as an alpha image layer, an altered avatar acknowledges your interest in a group, movement, or subculture that swells to critical mass in a small group. Logging in one morning, you notice a few friends have changed their avatar, then more, then that guy who never changes his profile image, piquing your interest and leading you to an explanation of the new image style, usually accompanied by a video tutorial or a simple image generator so that you, too, can create a new avatar.
It was Mangatars in August 2008; you personalized your Manga with hair, clothing, background, and text. That last field is important, as someone else could pick all the same character options, but have a different name on their shirt, for example, opening up infinite variations.
In Eightbit.me, you pick skin color, hair style, clothes, and shoes in an interface designed to be simple, and yet this simplicity, so crucial to welcoming new users, leads to an 8-bit version of you that feels generic. Unlike the wildly popular Instagram content (the service for mobile images with hipster filters on top), the 8-bit avatars don't feel special enough to share. The payoff from the few minutes it takes to claim a username and join a service feels like a bum deal here, nudging our discomfort in digital representations that rob us of the nuanced online selves we work to maintain.
It's not that the 8-bit characters aren't fun; it's that the 8-bit characters aren't enough like us. Are we interchangeable?
Cleverly, Eightbit.me doesn't allow you the choice to share. Logging in with your Twitter account, the service tweets out your new avatar from your account, adds itself to your friends, and changes your profile image, all without friendly pop-up windows or notifications that ask for your confirmation.
We have all been burned by Twitter clients that send out a spam tweet chirping about how you have joined their Twitter stat service and they can too! But the spam tweet from Eightbit feels different, like the Beacon moment when we all had to face up to the fact that connecting your account with an external app meant giving access to all of your information and the ability to write on your Facebook wall.
The problem of how to attract new members is one every service and startup faces, and the grating solution some sites choose allowing their service to be hooked into another service that broadcasts, littering tweets and status updates with announcements that your daily digital paper has been published, where to see your comment on someone's comment, or view the image you have just filtered and posted.
We used to call this insistent attention on a given service stickiness, lauding the Holy Grail of applications that integrate into everyday life, reeling us back in multiple times a day. Now we have entered a Venus Fly Trap moment, where the annoying pleasantness of sticky gives way to smarmy: the arch, knowing smiles from those with your account credentials as they insert their product into your profile.
Maybe it's only when you first log-in to build audience that a service would take these extreme measures. An app that runs in the mobile browser wouldn't require the iPhone to add it to the home screen every time you visit the site, right? "Aggressive," indeed.
New services poised to charm SxSW (the annual geek fest in Austin, Texas that begins tomorrow), typically inspire overnight clones, but Eightbit has instead inspired a parody service built by BNOTIONS called Eightshit.me.
The parody site winks at Eightbit.me's design and their onboarding process, asking for permission (as they don't) to tweet,
and giving notification of the upcoming Twitter avatar change (in language that intentionally does not inspire confidence).
The lagtime for creating the avatar reminds us that each image is being made (in MS Paint) by an "artist" uniquely for a user. The founders assert that what began as a weekend project is now a community 103 countries strong, and with contributors at the ready and tiered levels of participation, the parody site is impossible to resist sharing.
In any resolution, it is best to be on the inside, and a proud avatar-carrying member, of companies, services, and startups that treat personal information with respect.
When we can laugh at ourselves and our fickle profile image nature while choosing to share our updates, we truly have something to build upon.