My avatar took on a life of its own

You probably don’t know me, but I’m kind of a big deal.

Well … my face is.

About a year ago, I put my avatar on UI Faces, a directory where designers can donate their avatars for other designers to use in prototypes, mockups, and live websites. Before doing this, my avatar had already started popping up on the websites of several companies I had ties with — which was totally fine with me. Demonstrating your product in hypothetical situations is a great way to communicate what it does and how it works.

Soon, Chex-on-a-homepage became part phenomenon, part ploy to take over the world. You can find currently find my face gracing the homepages and about sections of some pretty cool products.

It was amusing to think that thousands of people were seeing my face and associating a persona with it that might be a huge departure from who I really was. My avatar, my face, was taking on a life of its own.

I imagine it’s something like how cartoon voice actors might feel — you never actually see the person behind the act, but you still form some sort of identity around them, filling in gaps where they exist until the idea of the person is whole and separate from the actual person.

Occasionally, polite people would message me and ask my permission to use my avatar. I always said yes. I put it out there as a resource, after all.

And then, one day, someone asked this:

I politely declined:

While I very much appreciated the fact that he even asked, I was a bit shocked that folks still thought to use fake testimonials to sell a product. Weren’t we in an age where we can more closely connect with customers? How hard is it to get actual testimonials?

Not that I didn’t know it happened — but that someone would think to use my likeness and make up an entire person seemed … surreal to say the least. But Rich was respectful of my wishes, so I quickly forgot about it and moved on.

About little over a month later, a friend tweeted this:

I clicked through to their website and there was my mug, attached to a fake name and a testimonial I never wrote endorsing a community dedicated to representing minorities in the tech industry. It sat amongst a few other testimonials I assumed were also fake (I recognized some of the avatars from UIFaces). While annoyed, I found the concept and mission of Steamrolers to be something I would actually endorse. I messaged them telling them I would join the community, check it out, and write them a real testimonial. They could continue using my avatar as long as they used my real name and real testimonial.

I never got a reply and they have since removed all the fake testimonials. I was a little disappointed — I thought this was a good compromise — but I couldn’t knock them for complying with my wishes. It seemed that being a real person with a real testimonial just wasn’t enough.

One night during dinner, my boyfriend popped my photo into Google Image search out of pure curiosity.

“Hey, you’re on a bunch of sites with fake testimonials.”

“Could you send them to me? I’ll reach out to them.”

All of them?”

“How many are there?!”

The search turned up 203 results and none of the results on the first page were actually me. There were dozens of fake testimonials bearing my likeness:

  • I am Andrea A. — a mom who endorses flameless LED candles as a way to fulfill my love of candles while keeping my children from catching fire.
  • I am Chelsea M. — a “roadie” who delivers things (like squirrel paintings) to people.
  • I am Jennifer Zapata — the mother of an autistic son who bought him a tablet filled with autism-oriented apps.
  • I am Maria — a first-year middle school teacher who was totally lost for the first few weeks of class.
  • I am Laura Smith — a detail-oriented gal from Massachusetts.
  • I am Amanda K. — a New Yorker who loves cooking, Shakespeare, improv, and using ALL CAPS and multiple question marks.
  • I am Rei Lane — a thankful Canadian who needed a car loan to care for her family.
  • I am username Nova24 — a mother-of-two who apparently spent enough time at the bar to be on a first name basis with the hotel bartenders (Alex and Vito).
  • I am Dawn from Vero Beach and my hair grew 1½ inches in 20 days.
  • I am Cristina — a once infertile, yet hopeful, mother now giving other hopeful mothers a 5-step plan for fertility.

One website goes so far as to give me an elaborate biography, establishing my credibility as an EMT to put weight behind reviews for holistic methods of yeast infection treatment:

I wasn’t going to publicly shame most of these websites, and the offenses vary in how much I actually wanted to shame them, but this next one is the reason I decided to write publicly about how much I find this practice shady at best and outright disgusting at worst:

A website called In Eternal Memory poses me as Jane Willard, a woman who is mourning the death of someone named Lucille:

A very descent memorial

Seriously?! You’re making up people mourning the death of a loved one?! I can’t imagine what the woman posed as the deceased would feel like if she is alive and found her photo on a memorial — or if she actually has passed and her family finds her photo with a fake name and a stranger posing as a mourner.

I’ve heard tell of this happening to former co-workers from Automattic, whose faces adorn the demos and support pages of Gravatar, but I never imagined this shady practice was so widespread.

I don’t consider myself a cynic, but I can’t read a testimonial without a dark little voice whispering:

“Are these people even real?”

“They sound too good to be true.”

“No one says awesome that much in one sentence.”

I look at our own company homepage and wonder if people think that about us. Do they trust us? Have we given them enough to earn their trust? (Our testimonial actually does come from a real person.)

Perhaps if you can’t get your customers to say good things you can put on your website, you need to make a better product.

It looks like the next time I give a real testimonial — I’ll need to use a new avatar.

Additional thanks to Myles Byrne, Mark Jaquith, Dave Newman, Matthew Farag, and Helen Hou-Sandi.

Product designer @Stripe. Karaoke enthusiast. Likes purple.