If you look at some of the research on how people react to actual photos of people in the context of a social media profile image, you can get a fair idea of the different effects that a picture can have on people.
Take this research that looks at first impressions on facial images that says
A variety of relatively objective assessments can be made upon perceiving an individual’s face. Their age, sex, and often their emotional state can be accurately judged (1). However, inferences are also made about social traits; for example, certain people may appear more trustworthy or dominant than others. These traits can be “read” from a glimpse as brief as 100 ms (2) or less (3), and brain activity appears to track social traits, such as trustworthiness, even when no explicit evaluation is required (4). This finding suggests that trait judgments are first impressions that are made automatically, likely outside of conscious control.
Tools like Photofeeler have also been developed to help gather this information from users, and can be used to help gauge what the potential reaction to the profile images might be.
But if you think about it, the information contained within the photo that doesn't exist in the avatar or name is just a snapshot in time of the person. This information persists because we keep seeing the same image but it is modified by our interactions with the person. A name simply provides identifying information for an individual, and an avatar is intended a stylized view of a profile image that provides a consistent theme and style but doesn't have to resemble the person in any way (the same could be said of a glamour shot or an expertly taken selfie).
Therefore, you can see profile images as a way for people to manipulate (i.e. you can change it without changing your actual personality or traits) first impressions whereas people will be relying on other types of interactions to determine character traits like trustworthiness, confidence and friendliness in the absence of the identifying feature that you get from photos.
This has implications for whether your application has:
- a short window of interaction time or long durations
- a one-time interaction or repeated contact/touchpoint
- 1-to-1 interactions or group dynamics