This is part two in a three-part arc on engaging males in social sites and social activity. Part one covered the concept of “mirroring,” and this entry will cover the use of images to make male visitors comfortable.
The study of male social groups is one of the longest and most thoroughly documented fields of research available. I remember reading Charles Lemert’s Tally’s Corner: A Study of Negro Streetcorner Men (Legacies of Social Thought), Frederic M. Thrasher’s Personality and Status Within the Gang, and Erik H. Erikson’s Youth and American Identity with fascination, and this doesn’t take into account soldier diaries going back to the Peloponnesian War that were required reading in my early college years.
A strong appeal for males on social sites is the lack of threat. Men among men will normally establish some kind of dominance and hierarchical structure. Prior to sites such as MySpace and YouTube — sites that didn’t necessarily contain images of people — hierarchy and dominance were demonstrated by language and knowledge.
Technology moves ever onward, though, and one of the things this forward movement favors is a return to the old manifestations of tribal dominance: size and strength. Now sites such as LinkedIn, Facebook and several others are allowing users to include images of themselves, and, as I demonstrated at the recent eMetrics D.C. Summit, such images can be deceiving.
The trick to allowing images while increasing a sense of social safety is to standardize the images. Social sites can standardize the size of an image, even if they can’t standardize the content. Here’s where some understanding of visual cognition and visual discrimination factors comes in handy. An image of my face might tell you a lot about me, and it’s probably not threatening.
That size image, even when someone’s full body is shown, stops any image from being potentially threatening or creating a sense of physical hierarchy, while still sharing something of the individual in the image. This is also where age, ethnic origin, income level, and occupation play a role in image selection. Very few CEOs will place an image of themselves walking on a beach in bathing trunks on LinkedIn. And yet, this would be common for college students on sites such as MySpace and Facebook.
Another minor trick involves how a male is contrasted with his surroundings in an image. Any male shown interacting paternally with children can be thought of as a “soft” image, regardless of the relative sizes of the picture elements. This is especially true if the central male is bent over so as to be accessible to the children included in the image.
Let’s work with this same concept to show something else: Now, have the male interacting with physically smaller males (same age, ethnic origin, etc.), and you have the potential for a dominance – or alpha male – situation. If the central male is directing them or guiding them in some endeavor, he’s obviously the leader. Is he instructing them in automotive maintenance? Not a problem. Is he standing at the head of a boardroom table with an arm raised and pointing at something out of the frame? Somebody’s in trouble, and people seeing that image will know it. Unless the remaining content assures them they’re not the ones in trouble, ouch!