Buddy icons are an interesting feature. I’ve never really bothered to question why they exist. But I guess there are two legitimate reasons: (1) personal expression (for the icon picker), and (2) rapid identification (for the icon viewer).
The first one is simple, the second just relates to the fact that humans can distinguish a variety of pictures more rapidly than they can discern text. So it makes sense, I suppose, to allow us to associate images with the people we choose to talk to.
But when picking buddy icons, most people don’t think about what the icon will actually be used for (hell, I’m not pointing fingers, I haven’t thought about it before now). This morning I was having a serious conversation over MSN messenger with an adult male whose icon was a baby. He has a decent reason to have a baby as his icon—it’s his newborn niece—but it’s disconcerting to have some damn baby staring at you as if (s)he were speaking the other person’s words!
Hackergotchis, small disembodied headshots commonly associated with aggregated blog entries, prove to be extremely useful in rapid identification of posts. But this is because Hackergotchis are images of something you (the reader) fundamentally associate with the author: their face.
I could give two shits about looking at some random icon that means nothing to me. And since this is my computer I care more about my usability experience than your extra bit of personal expression (hell, change your wallpaper if you want to express yourself). As of this morning I have disabled buddy icons in my IM client (gaim) because I am tired of looking at that damn baby.
But you know what would be really useful to me?—listen up software authors, there’s a UI lesson here—if I could set the icon that would display with an individual’s IMs. I’d slap some Hackergotchi-style faces up and then I’d actually have a reason to use buddy icons.