Avatars, faces and the socialisation of enterprise software

I just read a great post by Joshua Porter about the origins of avatars in computing and it made me think about the importance of faces in our online social interactions. It reminded me of a blog post that Kevin Marks wrote in May about faces and trust, which then led me on to posts by Brad Feld and Dave McClure.

Brad talks about the importance of real photos in Twitter, rather than a graphic or cartoon. He then discusses tying photos to people’s contact details on his iPhone and how useful it would be to have the same functionality in email. Dave McClure discusses the importance of faces in a wide range of situations and provides a lot of examples and counter-examples.

Faces are undoubtedly important to us. It’s how we primarily recognise people and those of us who are… let’s say physiognomically challenged find themselves frequently embarrassed at social gatherings because we are expected to be able to recognise people we have met before.

What, then, are the opportunities for enterprise software to become just a touch more social by incorporating avatars? Would email be a less awkward communications mechanism if we were shown a picture of the person we are replying to as we write? Would seeing a photo make us think a little bit harder about how our words might be interpreted by the person on the other end? Or would we end disadvantaging people who aren’t very photogenic? Or encouraging prejudice against those who have characteristics that can be perceived negatively, e.g. white hair triggering ageism.