Art-Tech

Selfless Portraits: Strangers Draw Each Other’s Facebook Profile Pics, For Better or Worse

"If someone drew a penis on my face, I’d be like, 'Dude why’d you do that?'"
This reporter did not go into an art profession for very obvious reasons.

This reporter did not go into an art profession for very obvious reasons.

Your Facebook profile photo is one of the first things that people notice when they browse your profile. Whether it’s a meme or a picture of a cat or an actual photo of yourself, what you put in that little square space supposedly says volumes about who you are online.

Jeff Greenspan, an ex-Facebook employee who now works as BuzzFeed’s chief creative officer, wanted to find a way that people could connect with each other through the visual information they offer on their profiles in a clever and creative way. Along with his co-creator Ivan Cash and Rally Interactive, the two devised a plan to “let users celebrate each other” with a site called Selfless Portraits.

“On Facebook you’re connected, but you’re still kind of separated from the screen by this layer of technology,” Mr. Greenspan told us by phone. “So we thought, ‘Is there a way people can use this technology as a human experience?’ Well, the Facebook profile is a very human visual part of the Facebook experience. What if you actually stopped and ponder one of them?”

That’s how the duo came up with the idea to draw profile pictures in a collaborative project. But you’re not just drawing your friends–the site, which uses Facebook Connect to collect your profile photo, matches you up with a random stranger to draw. Once you’ve done your first drawing, your photo is entered into the collective drawing pot until it’s assigned to another user. The result is a cool gallery of artistic renderings of Facebook profile pictures, from elementary stick drawings to quality portraits.

“We now have a real interesting collection of people from all over the world,” Mr. Greenspan said. “And not only do we have drawings from all over the world, but some real crazy kind of humor has been displayed by users.” (Like this portrait, where a giraffe makes a random cameo.)

“My goal with Selfless Portraits was to create an experience that uses the Facebook platform to allow people to have a deeper, more meaningful connection with another human being,” Mr. Cash said in a prepared statement (he’s currently on a “silent retreat” and thus unavailable for interviews). “My hope is that, after engaging with the project, people will feel encouraged to think a little bit more about places in their life where connection and/or creativity is possible.”

You don’t need any particular artistic ability to participate. This reporter is a horrible drawer and yet still composed a two minute sharpie portrait of a man from Brazil. “Do you think this looks like this person?” we asked a co-worker, holding the portrait up to the photo for a side-by-side comparison. “I don’t think that looks like any person,” he responded. Touche.

To date, the site has collected over 12,000 portraits and 17,000 users, averaging about 400 submissions a day. Mr. Greenspan said the duo would love to have a showing of the portraits in an exhibition space, or even compile them in print form.

As for moderation, the two work with a few volunteers to try to keep inappropriate content off the site, but so far it hasn’t really been an issue, perhaps because of the wholesome nature of the project. Mr. Greenspan said there’s only been about two incidents of unwanted penis drawings.

“If someone drew a penis on my face, I’d be like, ‘Dude why’d you do that?'” he joked.

Well, it is the Internet.

Follow Jessica Roy on Twitter or via RSS. jroy@observer.com