I’m a happy user of Gravatars (globally recognized avatars) that allow my face to show up next to comments I write to practically any blog site. However, I’ve recently realized that Gravatars (at least their current implementation) have a major flaw that will really inconvenience its users in the long run.
The basic problem is that blog posts and their comments are timestamped entities, which stay static forever (theoretically) after they have been created. A blog becomes an archive that with the help of permalinks allows others to refer to specific posts or comments, thus enabling the whole blogsphere, of sending messages between blogs. But if this archive contains information that is loaded from external sources, and thus is liable to change, the blog post no longer stays inert.
Now, a common practice is to include images or embed videos from other sources to a blog post. Anyone understands that if the video clip or other external media disappears from the referenced URI, then the blog post will lose part of its content, making its remaining parts and its commentary partially meaningless. However, it is easy to see that the cause is missing data.
Loading more dynamic content becomes problematic. Any external source that is likely to produce different content will make the blog post very difficult to understand later on. For example, embedding something like “today’s newscast” from a news agency, and commenting that, will be quite confusing if the shown content will actually each day show that day’s newscast, and not the one from the day the blog post was made.
All of this is quite simple, and probably most bloggers intuitively know that they should link to and embed stuff from as permanent sources as possible.
So what’s my problem with Gravatars? Some of you may have figured it out. While a gravatar image may not change very often, one should consider that Gravatars have been around only for a few years. Let’s take a longer view. My Gravatar image shows me at the age of about 30 years. When I’m fifty, I’ve probably updated by Gravatar image to show my current visage. However, when I do this change, all the hundreds of blogs I’ve commented on in the last 20 years will suddenly show a 50 year old man as a commenter.
This problem is even more acute to teens. When you’re 12 years old and commenting on your friends’ blogs, it’s nice to have your own face in there, probably with a funny grin on it. But after 10-15 years when you’re a respected professional and your Gravatar icon shows you wearing a business suit, your friends’ blogs will seem pretty weird, with you in your suit hanging out with teens.
Gravatar could of course fix this, by allowing users to have historical images that are sent to older blog postings. This would require a change in the API so that the call to get a Gravatar image based on an e-mail address would also include the date of the comment. Changing the API and getting all implementations to upgrade will be a challenge, but not doing it will simply break the system as people age, change contexts, and change their Gravatar images accordingly.
Tags: blog, gravatar, dynamiccontent, archive, future