Configuring a User Avatar in WordPress Is Not as Easy as It Should Be

I maintain a website with active user registration and a common support question I’m asked is, “How do I change my profile picture?” The answer is not easy as it should be. WordPress’ profile image system is powered by Gravatar, an Automattic owned service. It replaced the old method of uploading a profile picture in WordPress 2.5 “Brecker”.

The longer I maintain the site, the more frustrated I get that Gravatar is the default way users create and manage their profile image. In the past, I’ve written how managing Gravatars in WordPress is a bad user experience and not much has changed. Many of the people requesting support simply want an Upload button or link that enables them to upload an image and use it as their avatar.

One way to replace Gravatar is with the WP User Avatars plugin developed by John James Jacoby. WP User Avatars is part of the Stutter collection of plugins that replaces Gravatar and adds the ability for registered users to upload an image from their machine. Alternatively, users can click the Choose from Media button to choose an image from the Media Library. Existing profile images are preserved.

WP User Avatar Interface
WP User Avatar Interface

I tested the plugin on WordPress 4.7.3 and didn’t encounter any issues. It’s worth noting that according to the plugin’s FAQ, it doesn’t work well with multisite.

There has recently been some discussion on a six-year-old trac ticket requesting upload functionality for custom avatars. Some have even suggested that Simple Local Avatars, WP User Avatar or Add Local Avatar could be merged into core to provide the functionality. All three plugins combined are active on nearly 300K sites.

The site I administer is the first I’ve managed in my WordPress career that has open registration. Interacting with registered users who are often new to WordPress has opened my eyes to how bad of an experience configuring an avatar is. Relying on a third-party service as core functionality to manage profile images doesn’t make any sense.

Let us know what your experience is like configuring an avatar in WordPress. If you use a plugin that adds local avatar support, share a link to it in the comments.

18 Comments


  1. I like Gravatar and the convenience it brings of automatically supplying user avatars for those who are already registered with the service.

    That said, I run an active bbPress forum with mostly non-technical participants. We do get the question of “how do I get my little picture?” quite frequently, and the answer of registering for a Gravatar is often confusing. However, some of the plugins exposing options to use them media library would be equally confusing in this case too.

    My ideal solution would allow the user very minimal options to upload an avatar and maybe a choice to only use it on my site or to register it for use on other sites too, which would integrate with Gravatar. Bonus points if it could grab choices from the user’s registered social media accounts.

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  2. WordPress for websites with user registration is completely non-friendly at all. It’s still a huge job to make a WP site ready for user registration/content. It’s not only an avatar. It is whole system, how it works, starting with login, “backend” of user profile by default, top toolbar, default registration emails …

    Joomla is death, but WP can still learn a lot from that rest what still exist there (separation of backend – frontend, templates, modules, language overwrite, user management, user roles, menus, …).

    Joomla is outdated, so I am afraid to use it, but still considering it for some website bc. of mentioned tasks. Any kind of WP site with user content/registration required many plugins/tweaks and it’s still just a tweak, not a solution – some login/registration plugin, something to turn off toolbar, backend, something for handling emails, user-menu …

    I am fan of Decisions, not Options, but current “features” in WP are more legacy of old blog tool than a decision regarding to simplicity.

    It’s the Philosophy of WordPress to be easy, clean and simple.
    80/20 rule should be followed more often.

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  3. I totally agree – adding a Gravatar should be a lot easier.

    Having said that, I do like the whole Gravatar idea but if it were simpler to do it would be a bonus.

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  4. Hate Gravatar, having to make users sign up for a separate account just for a custom avatar is a joke. Great for Automattic though eh?

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  5. Gravatar is an awesome platform in itself. It’s great for those who aren’t new to it.

    While checking Gravatar for an existing image could very well be a viable core functionality, WordPress should have a local core avatar system rather than having a third-party solution as the default.

    Replacing default avatars with Gravatar should be a Jetpack feature, maybe also offered as a stand-alone (light) plugin, but not the default WP option.

    In that sense, Gravatar, as is now, very much piggybacks on the self-hosted open-source community.

    A conflict of interest and part of (WP) history forgotten.

    As a user I couldn’t imagine life without Gravatar because it makes life easier. I’m more than happy to sign up somewhere, also not WP sites, and note that Gravatar is integrated.

    As such I think WP core should check for an existing Gravatar profile image and then ask ‘We found this profile image for the email address you signed up with. Do you want to use your Gravatar profile also for this site [or do you wish to upload another profile image here]?’

    It *is* good UX… for Gravatar users.

    As a free mind though… to force a third-party solution as default upon each install, more so a third party solution which requires users to go off-site, for a local avatar is horrible a solution.

    Yet, it seems the centralized login mentality is deeply rooted at Automattic as was obvious as well when a WordPress.com account was suddenly required for WooCommerce.

    It somehow almost feels as if there is a conflict of interest somewhere between the world’s of .com and .org.

    Freedom of choice, more so independence of 3rd-party solutions, should be at the core of WordPress.org.

    Gravatar as default is not necessarily compliant with that spirit IMHO. I should not have to look away from a self-hosted install for a self-hosted avatar.

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  6. For normal users, going to Gravatar, registering with a wordpress.com email (yes, another name appears) and upload the avatar is too much and not very user friendly. Many terms have to learned and understood to make it work.

    I agree that WP should have an opt-out from Gravatar for user avatar. It just makes sense.

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  7. Gravatar is plugin territory. And then core devs say that Automattic has no say on the direction of .org, lol

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  8. I still maintain that for privacy reasons etc Gravatar should not be used by default in WordPress but I’m sorry to say that the maintainers don’t care about that. Having a service that exposes identifiable information in that way and not making site owners aware of it is not very good.

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  9. I follow Franky’s idea: I think WP core should check for an existing Gravatar profile image and then ask ‘We found this profile image for the email address you signed up with. Do you want to use your Gravatar profile also for this site [or do you wish to upload another profile image here]?’

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  10. I’ve no problem with Gravatar – until I decided to change my photo after several years, and found that I now needed a WordPress.com account. That got my goat a bit.

    Plus, if you build a site where you want author images just for that site it makes more sense to use something like WP User Avatars – which is what I use on my site and others I’ve built – than force users to visit a different site to update the author image for their own site, which is somewhat counter-intuitive.

    Gary

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  11. The Gravatar decision, in defense of Core, is likely not something they’d do today, but being as it is there now, they aren’t going to remove it. Especially when no local solution has been implemented.

    So, someone has to lead the effort to put in a local implementation. We can talk about it, but someone needs to spearhead it. The ticket has been open for a long time now.

    Once there is an implementation, local should trump gravatar if a local avatar is set and we move from there.

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  12. The Gravatar/WordPress acount can’t be deleted. So from philosophical perspective maybe not everyone want to be part of that service.

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  13. I hate local avatar systems. They’re annoying to me.

    That said, gravatar needs another refresh.

    I think gravatar needs an API. And maybe an iframe based script interface. Simplify. Make it accessible and modern. And integrated. And integrateable.

    I’m not ready to give up on the global avatar idea just yet.

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  14. Jeff, the problem with Gravatar is that it used to be a really simple self-contained system. Since the integration with WordPress.com (years ago), Gravatar suffers from a painful sign-on (good chance of conflict with another WordPress.com address). Gravatar as a cool easy free service was fantastic.

    Gravatar as heavy login, tracking software which follows you around the web is a lot less cool.

    You are right. The time has come for simple uploadable avatars within WordPress.

    David Shanke wrote:

    So, someone has to lead the effort to put in a local implementation. We can talk about it, but someone needs to spearhead it. The ticket has been open for a long time now.

    The issue is that there are great solutions there just ready to be integrated but since the PTB don’t want local avatars, there will be endless bickering and reasons invented why nothing is adequate. It’s worse than my quest to improve comment caching. When we created Trac tickets, they were closed by core committers or at best left to languish as Intense Debate is an Automattic product (not sure anyone cares about Intense Debate these days so we should try again). Local avatars (Gravatar competition) are a no-no.

    The avatar Trac ticket is linked in Jeff’s post and above in my quotation from David Shenke. Perhaps we can all put enough energy in to push this one through this time.

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    1. The comment above yours confirms us that we are stuck with Gravatar for years to come.

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  15. I’ve had a couple of clients that had membership/forum sites and asked me about allowing their users/members to edit their avatars without Gravatar getting involved. An understandable and reasonable request, you’d think. After trying to code around it, and realizing how much time and money was going into such a simple project for them, I had to advise them they’re stuck with Gravatar as long as Matt is running WordPress. Piling on plugins for non-essential functions like this starts to add up and usually isn’t a perfect solution anyway. I would love to see the cord cut between Gravatar and WordPress.

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  16. really like the buddypress force profile photo plugin, then a local picture can just be uploaded, by Buddydev

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