Friday, October 29, 2010

On face blindness, brain damage, and gravatars

Just a reminder, I'm blogging at The Debutante Ball today. Our topic for the week is "a good scare," and I wrote about my dad's storytelling. Judging from the comments, I'm pretty sure everyone's been too busy ogling my dad to notice there are words on the page.

Since I started my new job a few weeks ago, I’ve been introduced to lots of new people. Lately, the introductions have gone like this:

Staff member: Tawna, I don’t know if you’ve met Jane yet, but she’s our Tuesday volunteer.

It’s great to meet you, Jane. How long have you worked here?

Jane (looking slightly annoyed):
We met yesterday. We spent 10 minutes talking about my grandkids.

Right. It’s the story of my life. While I have a terrific memory for most things, faces and names have always been tough for me.

This is in direct contrast to Pythagoras, who has no idea where he left his keys 30 seconds ago, but who once approached a stranger and asked, “do you work at the Welcome Center?”

She eyed him warily, “Um, well, I did 11 years ago.”

“You gave me some brochures when we first moved to town.”

Me, on the other hand – well, it's not so easy. I read an article a few years ago about a condition called prosopagnosia or “face blindness.” People with prosopagnosia have an impaired ability to recognize faces, though their ability to recognize other objects is generally intact. When I first read the article, I was certain I had it.

“Look!” I told Pythagoras, waving the article at him. “This explains everything.”

He skimmed it, his scientific mind quickly absorbing the big words I’d chosen to ignore. “I see. It says it’s generally the result of acute brain damage. That part actually explains a lot more.”

OK, so I don’t have prosopagnosia (though I do like to say it ten times fast after drinking pear martinis).

Nevertheless, I do have to work extra hard to keep track of faces and names. That’s one reason I love it so very much when people using social media like blogs and Twitter and Facebook are kind enough to get a gravatar.

A gravatar is a globally-recognized avatar, and it allows the user to have a single photo for use in all sorts of online communities. I mentioned it here a few months ago, and I shared a fabulous post by Author Jamie Harrington about gravatars (where she even included a link to help people set up a gravatar totally free).

I know, I know…the online world should not be forced to cater to me and my lame-ass inability to remember faces. “I like to change my avatar every week to keep things fresh,” I’ve heard people say.

I get it. I do. But just know that if you’re an author trying to establish a brand, you make it tougher for people – even normal people without face blindness – to remember you.

Ditto that if you’ve got different user names for all the different social media platforms. When you’re trying to build a brand for yourself and get to know authors, editors, agents, and readers in online communities, why wouldn’t you want to make it easy for everyone?

Feel free to disagree with me on this. I know plenty of people do, and I’m OK with that. Do you like to change up your pictures and user names, or do you keep things consistent? Do you have an easy time remembering faces and names, or is it a struggle for you, too? Please share.

And if we ever meet in person, please wear the exact same shirt, hairstyle, and facial expression as you do in your online photo. That would really help me out.


Patty Blount said...

Since I joined Facebook way before I figured I'd someday use it for promotional purposes, it's under the name my family calls me: "Patty Ann". I also have both my maiden and married names on it, so people can find me.

Twitter, though, I am just plain Patty Blount. Character limits, ya know...

The Facebook photo is about 12 years old. I look AWESOME in that picture. The photographer offered to take nude pictures of me, so I figure AWESOME is not just in my mind.

I do change my Twitter gravatar often because they're not great. I love my latest one. I'm wearing my Avery Cates hat and the lovely Jeanie Moon said I look like a teenager. Not too shabby for a gal about to turn 45 in a few days! I may use this photo forever!

At some point, I hope to do professional shots. That will be my celebratory splurge upon earning an agent! (I am exclamation point happy today!)

Danica Avet said...

I know I don't have a picture of me yet, still waiting for my close-up, but I'm not a gravatar changer. I like seeing the same picture every time as well. It tends to help me remember people.

In real life, I try to remember faces. One time at a restaurant, I saw this guy who looked familiar and I frowned trying to remember where I'd seen him before. It was only as I was passing that I realized he was glaring at me because I was glaring at thought. Yeah, glad I never went to anymore of his shows (he's a musician).

Suzi McGowen said...

I actually do have face blindness (as does my mom and my son). It seems to be a genetic trait in our family, rather than brain injury.

I'm sure you've already seen this site, but if not, it's my favorite site to explain prosopagnosia to people. (Though it seems to be down right now.)

Ricky Bush said...

I NEVER forget a face, but names slip away from me frequently. I do remember the names and recall the faces of students that I taught twenty years ago, but at some point something faded out within my memory bank and it got to where I had trouble identifying students that I had the previous year--not their faces, but connecting a name with the smile. And, I reckon that my gravatar won't gravitate, because I change very reluctantly.

KTRichie said...

I do OK remembering faces, but I usually have no clue what someone's name is. I'm really impressed with myself if I can retain that information.

At conferences and certain social gatherings, people (are often forced to) wear name tags. "Gravatar tags" would be just as useful.

The Novel Road said...

Your post is fun as always. Now if I can just remember where I read it to tell a few friends...

I have a terrible time with names... People names exclusively now that I think about it? In fact I could narrow that down to "Current people's" names. I can spout names from history ad-nauseam, but the person a shook hands with a few moments ago remains but a stranger.

What about those awkward devices we use, when we name challenged, are faced with a person that says we've met? Trying to get someone else to introduce themselves to the person, in an oh so clever way.. and it doesn't work!

I swear I'm going to start writing names on my hand or arm and become an anatomical cheat sheet, but I forget the pen...

All the Best,


Sarah W said...

I work in the genealogy department of a public library, and while I usually remember the names of the ancestors of our regulars, I can never seem to retain the names of the actual living people whom I help almost every day. Awkward!

My gravatar is staying the same until they find a cure for antiphotogenic disorder. So if we ever do meet face-to-face, I'll have a playing card handy. :)

Unknown said...

Faces I remember extremely well ...

I can't remember names to save my life!

I can walk up to someone I last saw in second grade elementary and recognise them, but names don't linger. I usually took me one full year to actually remember any of the names at my high school.

My book on the other hand ... I have no problem remembering the backstory of every single character I create, name, nickname, how I hear their voice, ect. Believe me. I have absolutely no flat characters. If I mention a name, they're important to some part of the story and I always have a past story for why they act the way they do. Don't even get me started on the siblings of the main characters! I'm liable to have a fullblown ranting spree :D
I'm sure we don't want that :D

Eleanor Brown said...

Sadly, Blogger is not super-helpful on the gravatar front, though I do have one!

If I were named something like Tawna Fenske, I would probably use the same ID across networks. With a last name like Brown, however, you take what you can get.

Have you read You Don't Look Like Anyone I Know by Heather Sellers?

Unknown said...

I was just on Twitter (surprise, surprise) and a couple people had changed their gravatars. I looked at the pictures then the names and wondered why the heck I was following them (looking at their profile, I did remember but had no clue until then). Sad. Very sad. And I'm even worse with names!

Sonja Foust said...

I use the same avatar everywhere and the same username most places, and I never change it. I do, however, use a cartoon instead of my real face. Since, though, most of my writing business is done online. I feel like I can get away with it. ;)

Melissa Gill said...

When you said that there is a condition where people can't remember faces, I thought, I have that too. (now I can't remember what you said it's called, so there's that...) But I'm 75% sure I don't have brain damage.

I have the same Avatar on everything, but it's not a great picture. Some day I hope to have a really fabulous picture taken and then switch to that. But I agree with you. I like to be able to just scroll through the pics and see who's out there.

Bren said...

Funny about the face blindness. I'm the opposite. I have a photographic memory, so I'm great with faces, not so great with names. I've taught myself to be better though, like saying the person's name a few times during the first conversation (although I have to walk a fine line between memorizing their name and sounding downright creepy!). **why does she keep saying my name in that deep, thoughtful voice?**

I agree about avatars. It's important to build a brand online just as advertisers do. As a writer, you're advertising yourself. You want to stick in their minds, not make them wonder why you "seem" familiar.

It's interesting. I've never heard anyone talk about prosopagnosia before. My husband has a short story about a woman with the condition called Facial Recognition. Her husband says to her every morning, "I'm your husband, you just haven't met me yet today." Cool story, although I'm sure the condition is exaggerated a bit for the thriller aspect. :)

Fun post as always, Tawna.

Jeffe Kennedy said...

Tawna, you know I'm a fan of keeping the same avatar. It really struck me at RWA National last summer. At a convention of over 2,000 attendees, over and over people came up to me having recognized me from my twitter picture, and said hello. This included agents and editors. I understand the desire to "switch it up" - but in a twitter stream where all the characters look the same? It's good to make part of it be clearly YOU.

Hannah Hounshell said...

I make no promises, lol. My avatar is from one of my wedding photos.

Trisha Leigh said...

I am TERRIBLE at remembering the names of people I've just met. We introduce ourselves and ten seconds later I couldn't even come CLOSE to guessing what name they just told me. It's a problem, one I'm guessing stems from my listening issues, or the fact that most of the time I'm thinking about something else.

I use a gravatar. Mostly because I'm lazy. Oh, and because it takes about 257 pictures of me to find one that's halfway decent.

But I agree that it helps with recognition. I use the same one on Twitter, FB, my blog, goodreads, and when I comment on other blogs. From a marketing standpoint, great idea. From a fun standpoint, maybe not.


Patty, LOL, when I first started my blog & Twitter, I had a head shot my mom and Pythag both hated. Had to get new pics taken right away so I could replace it :)

Danica, I do that all the time, where I think someone looks familiar and stare at them rudely until they notice and stare back.

Suzi, holy cow, I'm fascinated by this! Everything I've read suggests face blindness is very rare, so you must be quite unique! Do you recognize close friends and family, or is every face a challenge? So curious to know more!

Ricky, my parents were both teachers and it's always a trip watching them try to remember names when they run into students from 20 or 30 years earlier.

KTRitchie, I was so worried about the face recognition thing when I went to that conference last month, so I was really happy people wore nametags.

Douglas, Pythag often forgets to introduce me to people, but when I can tell he's forgotten the name of someone he's talking to, I'm trained to say, "hi, I'm Tawna, the wife he never introduces to people" (thus prompting an introduction).

Sarah, I shall always remember you as the Queen of Hearts!

Matthew, Pythag remembers faces ridiculously well, but struggles sometimes with names. I think it's partly that guys are so fond of making up nicknames for each other that they can't remember people's REAL names!

Eleanor, LOL, so what do you use in forums? Do you stick in a middle initial or do "EleanorBrownAuthor" or something like that? As long as the name is similar, I can usually remember. It's when someone has four different names and pictures in four different forums that I have no hope of keeping track.

Mary, there are a few Twitter pals I can keep track of even when they change avatars because their names or personalities are so distinct, but I suspect I lose track of a lot of folks when they switch out pictures and I forget who the @#$% they are because they aren't using the same name they do when they comment here.

Sonja, the cartoon is distinct, and as long as you're consistent, I won't get confused! :)

Melissa, did you see the comment above from Suzi? I'm fascinated to know someone who really has the condition!

Brenda, you know, I'm excellent at remembering big blocks of text or poems or other chunks of verbiage. It's just faces I have trouble with for some reason.

Jeffe, great point about being recognizable from an avatar pic. I hadn't really thought of that, but since I look just like my photo, it should help when I go to my next conference, huh?

Hannah, so wait – you mean you don't always have the flowers in your hair?

Trisha, your pic is so adorable, why would you want anything else?

Thanks for reading, guys!

Ann Marie Gamble said...

My "change it up but keep it the same" strategy: my avatar has a lot of sky in one corner, and sometimes I paste pumpkins or Christmas trees or leprechauns in that spot.

My problem has become not that I don't remember people, but that everyone one looks familiar. Hopefully my warm recognition of another human is being interpreted as friendliness rather than weirdness.

Claire Dawn said...

Since I started using Claire Dawn, I've used it everywhere I joined. Unfrtunately the places I joined before like, have different usernames.

Elise said...

I am hideous at remembering names. This is especially bad at my daughter's school, where all the moms chat constantly, and I'm staring like a deer in the headlights, desperately waiting for someone to call someone else by name so I can commit it to memory... and forget it a second later.

colbymarshall said...

I used to be able to remember names and faces, but I've started to meet more people and am getting bad at it. It makes me want to make like the guy in Memento and take poloraids of everyone ;-)

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