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Twitter Drops Its Egg, The Unintended Avatar Of Harassment

Sometimes you've gotta crack a few eggs... Twitter's new default avatar is aggressively generic.

Since 2010, the default avatar on Twitter has been an egg. The idea apparently was that a new user was like a gestating bird, soon to make its first tweet. It was designed to be playful and cute.

But over time, Twitter's eggs came to symbolize something different: users who remain shadowy on purpose, to harass their fellow tweeters.

Today, Twitter announced that it was doing away with the egg as its default avatar, opting instead for a nondescript person-shape figure. No more bright colors, either — the new avatar is all gray.

In a blog post, the company gave three reasons for the change, which it seemed to list in order of least to most important.

First, the company says, it has a new look as of last year, and it wants users' avatars to reflect the "diversity and expressiveness" of the platform.

Second, it says, the egg was cute — too cute. The egg didn't inspire enough people to want to change their avatar. So Twitter is making the default avatar ... worse on purpose: "The new default image feels more like an empty state or placeholder and we hope it encourages people to upload images that express themselves."

(It's as if Twitter is giving the "flair" talk to its users: "You do want to express yourself, don't you?")

Third, Twitter addresses the elephant in the virtual room: that the egg often became a symbol of harassment:

"We've noticed patterns of behavior with accounts that are created only to harass others — often they don't take the time to personalize their accounts. This has created an association between the default egg profile photo and negative behavior, which isn't fair to people who are still new to Twitter and haven't yet personalized their profile photo."

As anyone who has been trolled can attest, the most virulent tweets often come from people not using their real names. And many of those accounts sport the egg avatar, because when you're creating an account for the sole purpose of harassing others anonymously, why take the time to upload a picture and risk giving clues to your identity?

One problem that the egg had obviated, Twitter's design team explained, was that "generic person" avatars employed by social networks often look masculine. (Those generic people rarely have long hair, for starters.)

To make its new avatar more gender-neutral, Twitter explained that it gave the generic figure narrower shoulders and made the head less circle, more oblong.

Perhaps the eggs were ready to be cracked when Twitter added functionality earlier this month to filter out tweets from accounts that had the default avatar.

The company has been under pressure to deal with the harassment that plagues certain reaches of the platform. The abuse was reportedly one of the factors that dissuaded Salesforce from buying Twitter last year.

Naturally, people used Twitter to criticize Twitter.

"Twitter says egg avatars were being associated w/harassment. Instead of working on harassment, they changed the avi," tweeted Jill Pantozzi, a pop culture writer. "This is like, a comedy at this point."

"We hope this new default profile photo encourages more people to express themselves on Twitter!" the company wrote in its post.

But not the trolls presumably.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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