As for me, my avatar really does not serve as a distraction, but rather as a point of location, it seems to immediately identify a thread without having to look at a text name.
That is what I like about the avatars too, and I also really enjoy seeing what people look like. I think it is not absolutely necessary, you can get to know them of course without seeing their picture, but it puts the discussion on a more personal level in my opinion.
I don't mind having myself stare back at me as my avatar, but maybe that is because I chose what I thought was a decent pic of me! :D Although I look different now because I got a haircut. But it is surely more me than the previous avatar I had before I got enough FP to put my pic on. I had toad and then the princess from Nintendo. While I did enjoy nintendo years ago, I no longer play video games.