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A profile image is the featured picture of the subject of an online profile. If you’ve ever visited a social networking site like MySpace or Facebook, looked up a friend, and seen that very first picture displayed at either the top left or top right corner of the webpage, then you’ve seen an online profile image. Profile images are not limited to social networking sites, though they can be found anywhere that a profile can be found, including some chat rooms, dating websites, online encyclopedias, news sites, and online games.
A profile image is very important. When someone is looking at an online profile, that image is usually the first impression of the subject that they get. Just like in real life, if the first impression is positive, the rest of the profile will generally be perceived more favorably; if it is negative, the contents of the profile will tend to be discounted. Because of this, many people put a lot of effort into their profile image. They may use a picture of themselves doing an activity that they enjoy, being with someone they love, or participating in an important event. Other people simply want to look good, and may even use professionally-taken headshots to make themselves appear more attractive.
A profile image does not have to be a picture of the profile subject; it can be of anything. To maintain anonymity in the real world, some people leave their profile image blank and only allow trusted individuals to see their real pictures. Other people feel that a work of art or cartoon character portrays them more accurately than a photograph does, so they use that. A few even use logos or icons to show their support for something like a favorite sports team or a preferred brand.
Profile images are sometimes used in more aspects than just a profile. If the profile is connected to an online message board, then the profile image may be displayed as part of every message posted. Similarly, a chat room connected to an online profile might display a smaller version of the profile image every time the person communicates with the room.
It is important to realize that the profile image may not be an accurate representation of the profile subject. Some people try to make themselves look better by using older pictures or images that have been digitally manipulated to remove an unwanted blemish. Others create fake identities online by using a profile image that is not them at all, possibly even being of a different age, race, or sex than they are in real life. Some people will even use profile images to "cyberbully" others, either by creating fake profiles that portray their subjects in a bad way or by using an extremely negative image of the person being bullied.