Mirror, mirror on the App Store
Why people are editing their face to perfection, and the dangers that lurk in these ‘subtle’ changes.
A genealogy of face editing apps
In 2013 the Oxford English Dictionary chose ‘selfie’ as its word of the year. At around the same time four Israeli computer science PhD students and a supreme court clerk had an idea for an app that would allow regular people to do Photoshop-style retouching on their smartphones photos. That app was Facetune. In 2017, Facetune was Apple’s most popular paid app. In search of face editing apps on Google, the most appraised app to show up is Facetune, advertised with a clear message: ‘Have very bad acne days? Facetune is going to be your next best friend.’ On lightricks.com, the website of the company that founded Facetune, the description used to promote Facetune 2, the follow-up app of Facetune, features the following phrases: ‘every selfie you’ll take will look amazing’, ‘fun, powerful, easy-to-use tools’, ‘leave your friends and followers wondering how you look so damn good’.
Besides Facetune, there are tons of apps on the App Store that allow users to use face editing software which turns their selfies into ready-made ‘instagrammable’ photos. The use of these apps has been a controversial topic, for example when people were all collectively uploading their images into FaceApp, an app which allows users to get a glimpse of their future self by making them appear older. This created a massive trend where people shared these pictures of themselves online, people started to get suspicious about where and how exactly these uploaded photos were being stored (Tiffany, 2019). Concerns about privacy and personal data falling into the hands of the Russian government turned out to be unjustified eventually (Carman, 2019), yet they did bring attention to our callous use of these apps.
Another, more ongoing debate, is the overall growing concern about the use and effect these apps have on people’s self-image. Problems like the distortion of our sense of self and body dysmorphia are both deeply embedded problems in our society that have been around for decades. It is generally agreed upon that the evils of Photoshop for example, are generating a negative effect on body image, and there is no need to narrow already-thin models’ waist or misrepresent their skin tones. However, there is a smaller evil growing that exists in the power that apps like Facetune give their users to create a digital persona that has little to do with their actual selves. This is exactly where our topic of concern lies: how face editing apps claim to provide ‘fun’ and ‘easy tools’ that allow users to smoothen, slim, or skew any part of their face or body in an instant, and create a perfect image of themselves. We argue that this image however, is based on a non-existent ideal and through this gamification that these apps afford, users are slowly turning into avatars.
There already exists a body of research into the harming effects on self-image by social media (Mclean et al., 2015), and the word selfie in research is often associated with narcism, obsession, hyper activity, addiction, and so on (Lee and Sung, 2016).What has not been thoroughly researched though, is the use of face editing apps. Perhaps this is because the use of face editing apps has a certain ambiguity. A lot of beauty vloggers and celebrities are open about their use of these apps, but with ‘normal people’ using the apps, it is not really something to boast about. Nobody wants to be called a fake, so there exists a thin line between editing your pictures while not making them appear heavily edited.
So, people want to use the app, but prefer not to have other people know they are using the app. While it often starts as ‘just for fun’, and people only want to get rid of ‘just one pimple’, users are quickly sucked into the gamescape of the app and experiment with more editing effects. What often starts off as a joke can turn into more serious business and it is for that reason they will have an image in their own head of something that is perfect and every time they look at themselves in the mirror they will find themselves wanting. It gets even more grim when we think of the fact that content on Instagram, however, is still believed to be the most accurate representation of reality, as it includes multiple content creators (consisting of ordinary people) and therefore multiple gazes that give their representation of reality. These gazes, however, are influenced by others’ gazes. And this collection of gazes we can call a shared social reality: a reflection of the behavior setting that is not necessarily realistic, as it is formed by people’s behavior that is influenced by the expectations of others and from which certain unrealistic norms and goals arise.
Playing the interface
To understand the unrealistic norms and goals that arise we have to analyse and understand the way in which users engage with the apps and how they are prompted and willing to spend an infinite amount of time editing their faces to achieve an unattainable image of themselves. We have looked in depth at three of the most popular face editing apps, to analyse the techniques they employ in order to entice users to engage more with the app.
We have specifically looked at three face editing apps, BeautyPlus, FaceApp and Facetune. Each of the apps stresses that they can make you look ‘more’ beautiful, and to share your edited photos for the world to see, for example BeautyPlus’s tagline is “share your photos with us and you may be able to featured as one of our cover models!” While FaceTune’s tagline is “leave reality behind and live your fantasy with FaceTune!” These are just two examples of the affordances that comprise the interface design of these apps, which is the possibility to look like anything, or anyone.
When you first download BeautyPlus, the interface is overwhelmingly pink and white demonstrating that it is most likely targeted at a female audience. The icons that they have are also directed at women, for example, the ‘slim’ icon pictures a woman’s waist to indicate that you can morph your body into certain shapes that may be seen as more desirable and more attractive. These are examples of low-level affordances, that are often associated with the materiality of the medium. For example, these low-level affordances are comprised of certain buttons on a homepage, the layout of the interface and features which allow the user to achieve their ideal image of themselves.
It is important to note that BeautyPlus’s headquarters are in China, and certain features on the app are designed to achieve a “whiter” look, giving the user the ability to widen their eyes, and make their chin or nose smaller. This is an indication of what BeautyPlus’s beauty standards are. It is clear to see that their idea of beauty is filtered through the app itself, demonstrating to the user the standards of beauty that they should be aiming for.
Facetune, which is one of the most popular facial editing apps has a similar dashboard to BeautyPlus. However, users have to pay for the privilege of using the app which will set them back 4 euros. Although it won’t break the bank, by having to pay for the app, it gives the implied affordance to users that the quality of the editing software will be at a higher standard than the apps which are free and that they will be able to achieve a more authentic and ‘real’ look by using the paid features to create their desired appearance. Unlike BeautyPlus, Facetune’s colour scheme is not outlandish and over the top, but smooth, using a set of grey tones to come across as professional, again fulfilling the idea of it being a better quality app for face-editing.
Unlike BeautyPlus and Facetune, Faceapp again blew up in the news when they launched an ‘ethnicity’ filter, which newspapers described as digital blackface. Although Faceapp shares a common feature when it comes to the dashboard, their filters are designed with a playful touch, allowing users to see what they may look like when they’re older, with different hair and eye colour. The icons are reworked emojis, demonstrating what is possible if the user decides to upload a picture of themselves.
There is an entertainment element to all of these face apps and it is clear to see where the element of gamification comes into play. Each of the apps offer a subscription fee for premium users, promising them special features that will enhance their pictures even more. By having these ‘locked’ features on the app, it entices users, as they are curious about what these other features have to offer, and how this may have an effect on the amount of likes that they might achieve on the social media platforms that they post them on, therefore they are more likely to pay to open these locked features.
Each of the apps share a commonality of prompting the user to post their pictures on social media once they are finished editing their chosen picture. With links to Facebook, Instagram and Twitter installed on the app, affording the act of sharing. This common feature not only demonstrates that these apps want to promote themselves (through watermarking the edited pictures) but also by creating a competitive environment with the user, the more likes they have on an edited picture, the more likely they will use the app to edit more of their pictures. There is no end when it comes to the unrealistic vision of yourself you can create when using these apps. It is clear to see that the low-level affordances have a direct link to gamification in order to convince the user to use the app for every picture they post on social media, and also use the app for longer periods of time.
The overall affordance of choosing between either subtle, plausible, and potentially convincing facial alterations or extreme, playful alterations meant ‘just for fun’ establishes an informational environment that is personalized and dynamic, offering a wide spectrum of possibilities for actions. What remains constant, however, in all possible cases is that the user occupies simultaneously the subject, the agent that performs the editing, and the object of the alteration, or as Barthes puts it, the photographic subject is neither “subject nor object but a subject who feels he is becoming an object” (Barthes 14). The insertion of the selfie into the face-editing software extends the self-objectifying and narcissistic logic of the selfie into a highly gamified environment, in which the user’s self-image, captured in the selfie, becomes a modifiable customizable avatar, which the user can subsequently use for the purpose of self-promotion on social media. In the case of Face App, the affordance of age alteration, brings in an experience of temporality akin to what Hanson (2018) calls ‘game time.’ According to Hanson, what is distinct about the temporality of videogames is their affordance of temporal manipulation, the capacity they afford the user to exercise control over the passage of time: just as in video games users are enabled to intervene in the temporal unfolding of the gameplay by pausing, repeating, suspending the game, Face App enables its users to manipulate the aging process itself: users are encouraged to experiment with creating images of younger or older versions of themselves, and thus are drawn into an alternate temporal realities, which is partly what renders them so intriguing and engaging.
In the case of the beautifying options, which afford the capacity to polish, refine and subtly tweak one’s facial features, users construct avatars that can be manipulated so as to approximate one’s idealized self-image, what Freud calls the ego-ideal, the ‘perfect’ version of themselves they want others to see and towards which they strive when they intervene in their physical appearance. At the same time, however, they widen the gap between one’s actual embodied self from the image that is shared with others. For Freud, the ego-ideal happens to be also the very point of contact between the ego and the super-ego (socio-cultural standards and expectations). The image of the ego-ideal, in other words, is precisely the very site where the superego mandates are inscribed. In the case of face-tuning software, the presence of the superego exists on three interrelated levels:
- in the affordances of the app and the algorithms coded into the software (where the superego is channeled through the programming performed by the developers)
- in the user’s own decision-making during the editing processes (which is modulated but not entirely dictated)
- in the very (real or imagined) gaze of other users to which the software potentially exposes the end-result through sharing options
Thus, what happens in this case is that the computerized editing of one’s self-image for the purpose of moulding it in accordance with one’s ego-ideal, while seemingly appearing to empower the user with countless possible modalities of exercising agency over his/her public image, obscure the multiple constraining forces that are encoded into the operations of the software in tandem with the user’s own internalized and largely unconscious preconceptions and biases, and that of the public audience of the social media to whom the image will be potentially shared (the gaze of the audience, even if only imagined by the user, still has a structuring influence on his decision-making).
The model of subjectivity that arises from this gamified milieu is one that is “experienced as multi-layered and multi-modal, which is why it can at once be disembodied, and body-focused” (Warfield 6). On the one hand, these technologies can generate a heightened sense of autonomy, by way of inviting the user to be an active agent who can exercise almost unlimited control over the images they edit. On the other hand, these same technologies further alienate the users from their real embodied existence, insofar as they afford a degree of plasticity and malleability that can never be attained in offline conditions.
Shattering the mirror
This alienation was something that we wanted to highlight in our aesthetic intervention. Upon researching the use and effects of face editing apps we decided to try feeding back multiple times into the apps their own end-results, thereby creating an aesthetic intervention. By altering our own selfies and then using these altered versions for further editing, we wanted to create an image that would render more visible the apps’ internal aesthetic logic and accentuate the patterns, aesthetic tropes and conventions that are inscribed in the code of the software. In doing so, we are hoping to give a stronger visual register to the extentforms of alteration afforded by the apps. To expose the harming effects that are being caused by the use of face editing software, we have used those apps to make them more available as objects of critique. Our intervention then was to turn these apps against themselves and expose their complicity in accelerating self-alienation. This alienation, this distortion of our sense of self, is displayed when you look at the exaggerated, cartoonish end results, with which we tried to raise awareness of plasticity of the digital personae that people are actively co-creating with these apps.
The reflection seen in the idealised mirror of these apps can best be shattered by turning it into a funhouse mirror, creating a reflection so distorted that it breaks the spell of the mirror itself. A mirror that can no longer answer the question: am I the fairest of them all?
Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York: Hill and Wang, 1981. Print.
Carman, Ashley. “FaceApp is back and so are privacy concerns”. The Verge. 17 Jul. 2019. https://www.theverge.com/2019/7/17/20697771/faceapp-privacy-concerns-ios- android-old-age-filter-russia
Hanson, Christopher. Game Time: Understanding Temporality in Video Games. Global, 2018.
Lee, Jung-Ah, and Sung, Yongjun. “Hide-and-Seek: Narcissism and ‘Selfie’-Related Behavior.” Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking 19.5 (2016): 347–351. Web.
Mclean, Siân A et al. “Selfies and Social Media: Relationships Between Self-Image Editing and Photo-Investment and Body Dissatisfaction and Dietary Restraint.” Journal of Eating Disorders 3.S1 (2015): n. pag. Web.
Taina Bucher and Anne Helmond, “The Affordances of Social Media Platforms”, Sage Journals, 2017
The Guardian, “FaceApp forced to pull ‘racist filters that allow for digital blackface’”, October 19 2019, <https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/aug/10/faceapp-forced-to-pull-racist-filters-digital-blackface >
Tiffany, Kaitlyn. “Privacy concerns over viral photo apps are totally valid. But they’re also often overblown.” Vox. 17 Jul, 2019. http://www.vox.com/the-goods/2019/7/17/20698271/faceapp-privacy-panic-russia-old-face-filter-app Warfield, Katie. Making Selfies/Making Self: digital subjectivities in the selfie. On-site presentation at the Fifth International Conference on the Image and the Image knowledge Community, Freie Universität, Berlin, Germany. October 29-30, 2014.