Launching Usercard:

The Part about Social Icons

Marching in the Icon Parade

The average person is on at least five social networks. You know the ones: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn, YouTube, Tumblr, Snapchat, Google+, Vine, and Foursquare; chat oriented Skype, WhatsApp, Viber, WeChat, and Facebook Messenger; lifestyle focused Houzz, Spotify, or Nike+; portfolio supporting Dribbble and Behance; and any other community that requires you, the user, to identify yourself with a username.

My use of these services ranges from tried and abandoned to religious devotion, but you don’t need to be a power user to be hyper-aware of social network offerings. Enter: the icon takeover.

Links to social network profiles have been infiltrating our web real estate over the last few years, and the exponential growth is starting to frighten me.

Time Out New York’s social links in Oct. 2011
Time Out New York’s social links in Aug. 2015

Strings of icons have become commonplace for brands, organizations, and anyone sharing a message on multiple platforms. They’re often stylized to fit into a theme and usually located in headers, footers, sidebars, bylines, bios, widgets, email signatures, newsletters, print ads, commercials, product packaging, and probably soon our food.

There is a responsibility to have a ubiquitous presence online because reaching an audience requires exposure, but I think the icon parade is an ineffective agent. The narrative of social network outreach has devolved from active, meaningful engagements to a trophy display. “Let’s connect on Facebook” is now a weak “Follow us everywhere” as if the icons are achievement badges or status symbols rather than connection tools. It seems “Look at us everywhere!” would be more appropriate.

The problem is identity. Now that dozens of additional networks have rolled in, so have profiles by thousands more. Displaying icons indicates where we are online officially and prevents false or missed engagements (e.g., fake accounts or inaccurate search results). In the case of online links, it also ensures you’re connected to the correct profile. We have to corral ourselves, but natural selection is only yielding these silly icon parades.

There is no clean organized system for social identities. I think having profiles on multiple networks is inescapable, but we’ve adopted a mindset (and design set) that fragments the experience. I’m on a mission to retool social icons, apply power to the identities they represent, and recruit our most underused yet most readily available authenticator — the username.

TL;DR Social network options abound, and the growing number of icons is hurting my head. We’ve totally over-complicated this system.

Coming up next

This is Part 1 of a TBD-Part mission statement. Future parts will include: visual examples of social engagement system failures and marvelous solutions with Usercard. To see where all of this is going, check out usercard.org.