The terms of use state:

Under no circumstances will Subscriber use the Network or the Service to [...] (c) create a false identity or to impersonate another person

Since there are many avatars of live action fictional characters, I guess it is ok to have a celebrity as an avatar. More so if dressed as one of the fictional characters they portray.

I've also seen several avatars which are the photos of little babies. It is most likely also fine since nobody is going to be thinking that such toddler would be posting on Stack Overflow.

But I've also faced the case of an user with a photo of a non-famous person which I mistakenly thought it was her photo. Furthermore she talked in chat, pretending to be a different person than later was revealed he actually is.

I made a Google image search to make sure that such an avatar is not a niche celebrity. Should I report such a case? Does it matter if the avatar user has consent from the person depicted in the avatar photo?

Edit: I've reverted my avatar back to my old one. Looking like Glorfindel is great, but unfortunately it was causing people to get the wrong impression. I am not asking about a user taking the avatar of another user or moderator. I am asking about using the photo of another random person. Who may be a member of Stack Overflow, but most likely is not.

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    I don't think that the avatar picture counts as user identifying data in these terms of use. They rather talk about a confirmed eMail account. Jul 14, 2018 at 10:06
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    This is legit, but stinks. I'd flag and expect avatar reset. (Already did here.) Jul 14, 2018 at 13:58
  • @ShadowWizard You expect a flag against something you claim to be legit to be attended? There is something I don't quite follow here. Jul 14, 2018 at 21:53
  • Yes. It's all about the intention. If done without intention as innocent mistake (e.g. using non real life avatar used by someone else) I won't flag but when you do it on purpose just because it's legit to say "Huh! I can do it and I'll create confusion!" it's just bad behavior. Jul 14, 2018 at 22:14
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    @ShadowWizard My question is not about non real life avatars. My question is about the photo of a person used as the avatar of another person. Those things don't happen by mistake. Jul 14, 2018 at 22:18
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    Exactly. So this is always bad behavior. Jul 14, 2018 at 22:20
  • To be fair, there are only 17179869184 possible 32x32-pixel images, so... this might become a close call at some point.
    – Marco13
    Jun 13, 2020 at 22:40
  • Just because an image looks real, doesn't mean it is real: This person does not exist. Jun 14, 2020 at 1:52

3 Answers 3


I'd see this a very grey area.

You are not claiming to be someone else, but at first glance you could be confused with them and while the confusion could be quickly cleared up it's unnecessary in first place.

Using the avatar of a moderator is straying further into "don't do that" territory. Again, there appears to be no malice or duplicity, but you are spreading more confusion - especially in chat where full names aren't always shown.

If this happened on a site I moderate and it was brought to my attention I would seriously be considering resetting the avatar by this point.

Of course, this is all ignoring the question of "why would you do that?". I can see why people might want to use celebrities or actors in certain roles as their avatar, but a random stranger off the internet? That doesn't make sense to me and you are already setting off alarm bells in my (possibly over-suspicious) mind.

Though if the moderator is using a non-personal image (e.g. a flag or other symbol) then it becomes harder to make the call. Because in that case there can be valid reasons why someone else would want to use that image (e.g. they're from that country).

Now if you were to change your name to "Glorfindel" as well, that would be something else entirely...


Using somebody's photo does not mean by itself that the user claims to be the person in the picture. It's understandable though that you make the connection (human minds work that way).

Furthermore she talked in chat pretending to be a different person than later was revealed he actually is.

That's coming into the territory of "create a false identity or to impersonate another person" as described in the Terms of Service. It will depend on the severity of the matter if any action can be taken against that user. If it's John Doe posing as Jane Smith, I would just ignore them (there is actually an ignore function in chat). If it's really serious, e.g. someone falsely claiming to have authority on a certain matter, consider casting a chat moderator flag on one of the messages in the conversation.

As always, remember that On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog.

disclaimer: the picture underneath this post really is me (a few years ago, of course)

  • So if I were to use Glorfindel's picture (the one from Earth, not the one from Arda) that would be acceptable under SO's ToS. Jul 14, 2018 at 11:25
  • You mean reuse my avatar, pure hypothetically (nobody in their right mind would do that :P)?
    – Glorfindel Mod
    Jul 14, 2018 at 11:28
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    That could be acceptable as long as our paths do not cross too often, so users would not mistake you for me or the other way around. Other users should not a Meta post of yours and think 'hey, I know that guy, he's a moderator on one of the sites, he knows what he's talking about'.
    – Glorfindel Mod
    Jul 14, 2018 at 11:38
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    Also, technically, by the CC BY SA license, you should mention where you got that picture from ... everywhere you use it. Trust me, that will be annoying.
    – Glorfindel Mod
    Jul 14, 2018 at 11:40
  • Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Jul 14, 2018 at 12:26
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    Heh, this can be fun (for a while), but bumping old posts is a bad side effect.
    – Glorfindel Mod
    Jul 14, 2018 at 12:36
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    Also, at some point, it smacks of post self vandalism, and might get you suspended. Jul 14, 2018 at 13:36

I guess the important thing is the possibility of passing yourself off as someone else, and the potential confusion.

Someone tried it with my ava (which admittedly is SE famous...) and people were irate, and I was in the amusing situation where... I missed all of it.

The difference with having a ava of someone famous, and a regular user, mod or otherwise is there's a reasonable chance of confusion.

Even if its a past avatar, someone might still get confused.

I'd add this is even without any other issues. if you're using someone elses ava with the intention of causing trouble, this might compound things.

so... might be a great idea to change your ava back from the user you're imitating.

I'd also add the editing (and reediting) your posts to meet the criteria of the CC licence can be onerous - bulk edits may be seen as vandalism, and you're essentially adding a signature, which we disallow on posts here. Might as well just have a unique avatar of your own.

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    Fair enough. But maybe you would like to talk about this in the mod room and come up with an unified response. Having the mod of a site saying that it is ok but there should be compliance with CC-BY-SA 3.0 and later on the mod of another site saying that such compliance with CC-BY-SA 3.0 is a disallowed signature does not inspire much confidence. Jul 14, 2018 at 22:15

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