Since Gravatar was bought by Automattic, the service has been a lot more stable. I had already re-enabled them on this blog before WordPress 2.5 came out with built-in Gravatar* support.

Not everyone has a Gravatar, though, so many comment threads just show the default icon, over and over. Not only does this look boring, but it misses out on the whole point of using an avatar: providing an easy at-a-glance visual distinction between each author.

When I first used Gravatars on this site, I set it up to use a giant first initial as a fallback. Now, I’ve been trying out two plugins that will automatically generate avatars for people who don’t have their own:

  • Wavatars builds up cartoony faces using geometric shapes. Interestingly, it’s by Shamus Young, author of the screencap-based webcomic DM of the Rings and writer of Chainmail Bikini.
  • WP_Identicon sounds like a Transformers faction, but produces a geometric pattern as inspired by Don Park’s Identicon, which built a similar image based on a visitor’s IP address. The same author also has one that generates cartoon monsters, which appears to be one of the earliest implementations of this concept.

These plugins will use a Gravatar if available, or else generate an image based on the commenter’s email address (if supplied). That means each comment by the same person should use the same image. Other blogs using the same plugins at default settings will come up with the same avatar for each commenter, as well. The images are stored in a cache, so each only has to be generated once.

6 Wavatars to the left, 6 Identicons to the right

Once I made sure both plugins worked, I showed the results to Katie. We ended up settling on Wavatars, since faces are easier to recognize than patterns. (Though the patterns are really cool!)

You can try out the automatic avatar by leaving a (relevant, please!) comment on any post. Or you can run over to Gravatar and set up an icon of your choice!

*What’s a Gravatar? The intent is to be a Globally Recognized Avatar. You upload an image to Gravatar and associate it with your email address. Then any site with Gravatar support will be able to display your image next to your posts. Right now it’s mostly used in blog comments, but it could easily be worked into forums, wikis, etc. The Gravatar Blog mentions other uses they’ve seen people apply it to, such as plugins for Thunderbird and the Mac OS X Address Book

Note: I did notice one important drawback to the WP_Identicon plugin: it’s very inefficient at generating the images. When I first visited posts with long comment threads, like Another One Bites the Dust (174 comments) and Songs Not to Play at a Wedding (87 comments), WP_Identicon took over a minute to generate all the icons and maxed out the server’s CPU. Sure, the images are cached, so it’s only really an issue when you first install the plugin (unless you get a lot more people commenting at once than we do here), but to compare, Wavatar on an empty cache finished the same posts in just 4 seconds and 2 seconds, respectively.