Extending the self with Instagram's augmented-reality face filters

June 1, 2022

In recent years, we have seen rapid growth of the use of augmented reality face filters on social media platforms such as Snapchat and Instagram. It all started with innocent 3D overlays that add cartoonish dog ears and snouts or flower crowns, but soon encompassed much more elaborate virtual objects and metallic, futuristic and surreal layers that totally change users’ appearance. While the earlier filters only added virtual objects to a user’s face, these new AR face filters really blend these objects and layers together with one’s physical appearance. As a result, these filters raise questions about our digitally positioned “self”. 

This new generation of filters allows users to create aesthetics, spaces and opportunities that would be physically impossible to realize. As such, they can be understood as cyborg elements that extend the human body. While cyborgs are generally thought of as physical blends of man and machine, these augmented-reality face filters provide another means of extending or altering one’s appearance. The accompanying virtual cyborg elements add new possibilities to present our “selves” and allow users to step away from their actual selves and discover their desired self. Unlike with avatars in computer games or robots, one’s actual appearance remains central in these Instagram filters. Users find themselves in the body of their desired self, allowing them to be who or what they want, regardless of their humanity, race or gender, and thus to strive for a more diverse future free of any imposed binary restrictions. Is this the first step towards a world in which the self is merged with technology? 

Burning questions:
  • Are we moving towards a culture in which our digitally positioned self is more important than our actual self?
  • What will the future look like with these augmented reality face filters if humans start incorporating them into their daily lives as part of discovering their desired self?
  • Do Instagram’s AR face filters contribute to our zeitgeist, in which we strive for fewer binary restrictions?

About the author(s)

In 2022, Myrthe joined our thinktank to conduct research on the evolution of the cyborg, the interaction between humanity and technology from an anthropological perspective, and how social media affect our self-esteem and self-identity. She has completed her internship at the thinktank but remains a member of our network FreedomLab Academy.

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