Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 16 November 2019

Why filters have become a crutch: 'The more we edit photos, the more dissatisfied we become'

How Augmented Reality tricks may be achieving the opposite of what they are supposed to do by making us feel worse about the way we look

Snapchat launched its first lens feature in 2015, with both Facebook and Google following suit. Ravindranath Kantharaju / The National
Snapchat launched its first lens feature in 2015, with both Facebook and Google following suit. Ravindranath Kantharaju / The National

Few of us are completely happy with the way we look, but there is plenty of software out there that aims to address some of those anxieties. Augmented reality (AR) filters in photo apps allow us to do things such as slim our faces, change the shape of our noses, make ourselves look younger and superficially more attractive. As a result, they have become hugely popular.

One floundering digital business, Snap, transformed its fortunes by offering pioneering AR filters in its photo app, Snapchat, and companies such as Google and Facebook have rushed to catch up. Last week, Facebook announced it would be allowing anyone to create their own AR filters for use on Instagram, promising, as the company put it, to “add new layers of meaning to the world”.

Seeing another version of ourselves

It’s not immediately clear, however, what the depth of that meaning might be. Two of the most popular AR filters this year, both by Snapchat, are “Baby” and “Gender Swap”, which do exactly as you might expect. The former depicts you as a baby, while the latter shows women what they might look like as men and vice versa. These two filters (or lenses, as Snapchat calls them) drew about nine million curious people to the platform over the second quarter of this year. Other filters lean away from frivolity and towards art.

People want to see a version of themselves that they feel good about. Some of our participants reported that they would edit a picture and wouldn’t necessarily post it. So it’s partly about their relationship with their own image and how they perceive themselves.

Jennifer Mills

Johanna Jaskowska, an artist who lives in Berlin, launched “Beauty­­­3000”, which gives faces a shimmering sci-fi sheen and was a huge hit on Snapchat this year, proving that people – as well as companies – can wield influence in the AR sphere. As these filters become part of our lives, huge sums of money are being made out of changing the way we look at ourselves.

Jennifer Mills, associate professor in the department of psychology at Toronto’s York University, has conducted extensive research into people’s motives for embracing this form of AR and she says the results were fascinating. “There’s the public motive of displaying the most perfect version of yourself and that’s partly to get other people to respond positively,” she says. “But there’s also a private motive, that people want to see a version of themselves that they feel good about. Some of our participants reported that they would edit a picture and wouldn’t necessarily post it. So it’s partly about their relationship with their own image and how they perceive themselves.”

The public hunger for AR filters began about four years ago when Snapchat launched its lens feature, which used facial recognition technology to enable real-time effects. Millions of people – mainly young women – enthusiastically embraced the puppy-dog filter, which transformed them into cute cartoon dogs with shiny noses and floppy ears. “On my best day, with multiple apps, perfect lighting and sunglasses, I still wouldn’t look as good as I do with the dog filter,” one Snapchat user says on Twitter. But by covering up the nose and effectively slimming the face, the filter became more than fun – it became a crutch.

How AR has been taking over the world

About 18 months later, in April 2017, Facebook launched its own AR platform in direct competition with Snapchat, and by the end of that year Google had introduced AR effects to its Pixel phones. The opportunities afforded by AR were ever more apparent – and not only for individuals, but for brands eager to embrace the fad.

Beauty firms used it to showcase make-up techniques, games began to incorporate it and media companies racked their brains to come up with ways of using it. In April, anyone pointing a Snapchat camera at New York’s Flatiron Building would have seen it encased in ice, thanks to a tie-in promotion of the hit TV series Game of Thrones.

People used to go to the surgeon with pictures of celebrities – they now want to look like filtered images of themselves. The image filters alter facial features such as the jawline, skin tone and eye size. Ravindranath Kantharaju / The National
The image filters alter facial features such as the jawline, skin tone and eye size. Ravindranath Kantharaju / The National

But as filters have normalised AR, their effect on some people’s self-confidence has grown. One company, Banuba, has been promoting its AR technology for use in online dating, so people can transform their appearance during video chats. In China, the growing use of facial recognition technology as a payment system has led to complaints from customers that the point-of-sale experience makes them look ugly. One company, Alipay, has responded by introducing AR beauty filters to reduce people’s disappointment at their own appearance.

People who are more confident check their appearances less

“Most of us don’t necessarily like the way we look when we see a photo of ourselves,” says Mills. “Part of that is visual distortion – taking a three-dimensional object and putting it into two dimensions – but people seem to have a positive bias toward what they think they look like. When they’re confronted with an image of themselves, they’re not happy, so they use filters to ‘fix it’.”

But while Mills’s research found that filtering had a slight benefit in making people feel more confident, it didn’t necessarily make them feel more attractive. “What we think is happening is what we call ‘bodychecking’, in which people ­repeatedly seek visual feedback about their appearance,” she says. “The more they do it, the stronger the connection between seeing an image of themselves and feeling dissatisfied or upset. It’s not a good thing, in the short or long term.”

Millions of people are using filters with no negative psychological effects, of course, and you can easily interpret the use of AR filters as a form of harmless escapism – indeed, Jaskowska has proudly asserted that her filters are a reaction against a beauty industry seeking to capitalise on low self-esteem. But Mills says the gender bias in the use of filters is a strong indicator of a problem. “Our findings confirm that while men have other insecurities, they’re not as anxious or dissatisfied with their appearance as women are,” she says.

The people most comfortable with their appearance, she says, are those who spend the least amount of time checking it – but the ever-present smartphone is a tool almost designed to mess with our self-image.

“The research shows that the more we edit photos, the more dissatisfied we become,” she says. So as AR filters become ­increasingly sophisticated and our real and digital selves become ever more intertwined, the contrast between what we look like and what we want to look like is likely to grow wider.

Updated: August 20, 2019 12:22 PM

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