When the selfie becomes an avatar

July 25, 2022

When the selfie becomes an avatar

Myrthe Tiemessen
July 25, 2022

When the selfie becomes an avatar

How Instagram is preparing itself for the metaverse
Myrthe Tiemessen
July 25, 2022
When smartphones entered our lives, selfie culture went viral. Facebook and Instagram have dominated this space for almost a decade, but things are slowly changing...
Companies like Fortnite and Tiktok are mainly built on avatars and memes—not so much on selfies. They have created new virtual worlds centered around participation and co-existence.
Meanwhile, Meta is trying to keep up. Will their selfie platform become an indispensable asset as they advance toward the metaverse?
When the selfie becomes an avatar
Myrthe Tiemessen
Maya Turolla
July 25, 2022
Design by Zeynep Algan. © FreedomLab

At first glance, Instagram seems like nothing more than an ordinary selfie platform. However, the platform is much more than that. It is a crucial ingredient in the metaverse strategy of Instagram’s holding company Meta; the plan is that it will eventually converge with other interfaces and services such as WhatsApp, Facebook (Horizon) and Oculus Rift Glasses. The Instagram platform is taking its first steps towards this with its Augmented Reality (AR) face filters, as they transform the selfie into an avatar which allows users to enter a virtual world. 

Before the digital age, we took analog photos that we presented to others in photo albums. Not surprisingly, forms of self-presentation changed with the rise of social media platforms and smartphone cameras, as these offer countless features that allow people to control how they present themselves to their audience. This caused the selfie to go viral and selfie culture was born. 

Instagram is one of the platforms that contributed to this new form of self-presentation on the internet. It entered the market as a photo-sharing platform in 2010, taking over the role of the analog photo album and becoming the platform of selfie culture. However, rapid changes in the digital age and Facebook’s metamorphosis into Meta are now turning the platform into more than a selfie medium. It’s taking its first steps towards the metaverse. 

Many of us first encountered the metaverse when CEO Mark Zuckerberg used the term during the announcement of Facebook’s rebranding almost a year ago. From that moment on, more and more companies began to delve into the metaverse. Despite a range of companies working on it, we have a certain notion of it as related to game culture. 

This may have to do with the fact that the metaverse refers to a virtual world, which we can enter with an avatar and explore open sandbox worlds. This is especially familiar in game culture. People can, for example, go on a quest with other players in World of Warcraft, visit an interactive Martin Luther King, Jr. civil rights museum in Fortnite and experience the virtual world of Spotify Island in Roblox. It is not surprising, then, that when we think of the metaverse, we think of youth and adolescents playing computer games. We can call the virtual worlds using the game industry as their approach path the gaming metaverse

However, during the coronavirus pandemic we were introduced to a second metaverse strategy using a different starting point, namely the first prototypes of the enterprise metaverse: a virtual space for businesses to work remotely and to promote their digital services and products. Microsoft was one of the pioneers in this field. Innovations such as spatial audio and the integration of third-party apps are slowly improving the immersivity and interoperability of telecommunications services such as Teams. 

While companies such as Roblox and Microsoft mainly focus on virtual metaverses beyond the physical realm, others prioritize augmented metaverses that integrate the virtual into the physical environment. Niantic has been a frontrunner in this area with AR games such as Pokémon Go. Snapchat recently introduced its first pair of Augmented Reality (AR) glasses called Spectacles. This interface enables new ways to view and create AR filters as they capture footage of the real world from the user’s point of view and apply a filter to it. As a result, a world is created in which one’s physical body can move. In this world, virtual life and real life meet constantly.

Where are Meta and Instagram in this race? Zuckerberg aims to create a world where the different brands and interfaces of Meta converge in an immersive virtual world. His strategy is a vendor lock-in of users across different social media and communication platforms and to boost the adoption of new VR/AR interfaces, which can be seen as an ongoing process. We can call this third type of metaverse strategy the social media metaverse. Here, social media platforms are the starting point of developing the metaverse. 

Thus, Zuckerberg’s strategy to further merge physical and virtual environments by creating and adopting new interfaces and integrating them with social media, ensures that the metaverse can be seen as more than a virtual game arena or office. How exactly does Instagram figure into this strategy? The platform is all about presenting yourself to others with selfies and has little to do with creating avatars and playing games. Right? Well, because the platform is constantly evolving, these selfies eventually turn into something more like avatars. To clarify this, I will look at a specific feature of Instagram, namely its AR face filters.

Instagram’s Augmented Reality Face Filters

Instagram offers a wide range of features to control one’s self-presentation, of which its AR face filters are an example. These AR face filters consist of computer-generated effects and virtual layers that are placed between the real environment and the user. They are layered over the image a camera displays and can remove and add data to an image. For example, they boost colors in an image, add virtual objects to a user’s face, or blend objects and layers together with one’s physical appearance. The AR face filters allow for the creation of things, worlds and characters that do not exist in real life. They enable users to add to and deviate from reality, bringing disparate virtual worlds together. In this world, users can show images of themselves that look different from how the real world sees them. It provides new ways of expressing, and therefore getting to know, oneself. 

These AR face filters aren’t new but have evolved from innocent 3D overlays that add cartoonish dog ears and snouts to futuristic and surreal layers that totally change users’ appearance. They are unique in that they are customizable, personal, real-time virtual portraits that include the physical body. They are increasingly used to transform the image of the self. Research has even revealed several trends in AR face filters that deal with the transformation of the digitally positioned self. These include the concepts of the futuristic self, identity formation and cinematic narrative-style storytelling. All three allow users to see virtual mutations, explore the possibilities of what it means to be human and create an avatar of their own self. 

Ines Alpha, one of the creators of the above-mentioned AR face filters, considers her AR face filters the ultimate metaverse experience. This is due to the fact the AR face filters focus on one’s physical face. The face is the first thing you see in another person and gives rise to expectations about their identity. The face shapes a person into something or someone that can enter the metaverse. In addition, AR face filters aren’t subject to the constraints of reality, and today involve more than just beautifying one’s face. This allows for unlimited possibilities to create whatever you want. 

The first step towards the social media metaverse

Instagram users are increasingly experimenting with AR face filters as they allow users to create aesthetics and scenarios that would be physically impossible. For example, the AR face filters can turn someone into a robot or holiday cheeky elf, add an extra pair of arms or put one’s physical face on a metallic body. Many different things are possible with the use of AR face filters as there are no restrictions to follow. They are all about the merging of real life with virtual life. They therefore contribute to Instagram’s first steps towards the metaverse. Let’s clarify this a bit. 

Instagram’s AR face filters allow users to transform the image of the self and explore their ideal self. As stated above, Instagram is the mother of selfie culture because of its medium-specific form of self-expression, which is presenting the self in the form of a selfie. 

Design by Zeynep Algan. © FreedomLab

Users can experiment with images, try as many AR face filters as they want and then present a strategically chosen version of the self. In selfie culture, we would call this virtually modified self an ideal or transformed self, whereas in game culture it is more likely to be seen as an avatar or character. In both cases, it is about being able to identify with the creation that represents you to the outside world.

Due to the developments of Instagram, selfies are increasingly converging with avatars. For example, we used to present ourselves with a selfie that had to comply with beauty ideals rooted in physical reality. Today, the platform contains more (interactive) tools, of which the AR face filters are an example, that no longer just serve to achieve the aesthetically perfect picture but also help create futuristic or surreal images of the self. The platform is shifting from being a medium through which we present a(n) (perfect) image of ourselves, to a gateway to a virtual world. This strategy is comparable to what we see at TikTok and seems to be a general trend in the evolution of social media. 

While in games we deal with pre-formed and often cartoonlike avatars, Instagram gives us a fully new experience by using social media and the selfie as the starting point to create an avatar. Besides changes to our appearance, the social media avatar also mediates our emotional expressions. Nowadays, we increasingly see users recording a video in which they tell a story or convey a message while having the AR face filter placed over their face. They then share this image with the outside world. This adds an extra dimension to the story or message being conveyed. For example, some users apply the sad face filter when telling a sad story. 

However, this filter, among others, also carries risks as many users place this filter over someone else’s face without them noticing it, making them look sad. As a result, they show a completely different image of the person in question. Fortunately, we are still able to control this image because we can see someone take the video and post it on Instagram. But what will happen in the future of the metaverse when the possibilities of AR face filters converge with other interfaces? Will this create opportunities for self-expression, or will it take away our control over ourselves? 

The future of Instagram’s AR face filters

As stated before, questions remain about how exactly Instagram will converge with Meta’s other assets and if regulators will allow this integration of services. Despite the uncertainty, we can outline some scenarios. 

By using AR face filters, we can create a different kind of self, also seen as an avatar, with which we can enter the metaverse. Since virtual worlds converge in the metaverse, we will then be able to use this Instagram avatar to participate in a work meeting, attend a concert in Facebook Horizon or meet new people in other metaverses such as Fortnite, if they become interoperable. In this case, Instagram will apply an identity layer to the metaverse.  

What about the opportunities and risks? While many rightfully criticise the narcistic elements of selfie culture, it is worthwhile to look beyond the mere dark side of selfies and avatars. By experimenting with our virtual selves, we might also gain new insights about our physical selves in a safer or more anonymous environment; the metaverse as a pilot for identity building.  Furthermore, virtual disembodiment opens up possibilities. We will no longer have to leave our house and can easily step into this virtual world with our artificial bodies. A cliché, but nevertheless important.  Think of elderly people who have trouble walking. 

However, the convergence of Instagram and its AR face filters with the metaverse also carries risk. We create our identity the moment we express it to others. This might preclude us from knowing who we really are. As German philosopher Helmuth Plessner once said: “humans are artificial by nature”. Keeping this in mind, we might argue that our identity then depends on the kind of selfie we share with others and the AR face filters involved, which blurs understanding of the true self. Both help us express ourselves and create the ideal and transformed self. 

Currently, we are still in control of how we present ourselves to the outside world. But given the developments of the metaverse and new interfaces, this control may gradually be taken from us. In fact, Instagram may merge with the metaverse in such a way that others have control over our appearance. Maybe in future we will be able to choose for ourselves whether we want to see someone’s ideal or transformed self, created with an AR face filter, or their true self. 

Perhaps Snapchat will develop its Spectacle so that you can eventually decide how, and through which AR face filter, you want to see others in the metaverse. Some might choose to live in an augmented world where everyone is sad and place the sad face filter over everyone’s face, while others may live in a genderless world, using the non-binary filter. In any case, everyone will be able to live in a world in which they can fully immerse themselves. This is also characteristic of game culture. However, the difference between selfie culture and game culture is that using AR face filters in the physical world, rather than pre-formed game avatars in virtual worlds, places augmented bodies and avatars in the physical world. This could be seen as a danger because it allows people to have control over how they want to experience the physical body and therefore the appearance of others. Do we really want this?

In a nutshell, Instagram’s AR face filters create opportunities and risks for the future of the metaverse that will remain a mystery if we only perceive Instagram as a social media selfie platform. 

About the author
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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