Byron Reeves on research showing the relationship between realism and influence in avatars:
Realism isn’t necessary to be influential. The more realistic an avatar looked (photorealistic versus cartoonlike), the less likely it was that people were willing to disclose personal information to that avatar when they first meet. If your job involves interviewing, there’s no need to impose on the interviewee with great pictures — a cartoon might do just fine.
In fact, research from OKCupid showed a parallel result regarding profile pictures:
Your face doesn’t necessarily matter. In fact, not showing your face can in fact be a positive [increases contacts per month], as long as you substitute in something unusual, sexy, or mysterious enough to make people want to talk to you.
These sorts of abstract versus realism ideas always lead me back to comics. Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics (1994!) showed how an abstract sketch of a simple smiley face is a more effective representation than a detailed photograph when one intends to appeal to a broad audience. The lack of detail allows room for a greater resonance, engaging ideas that go beyond a single person’s vision. Audiences are free to interpret the drawing, projecting their own stories upon it.
For the greatest resonance, use the least amount of detail.