AR in Social Media: The Beautiful and the Ugly

We have all played around with the plethora of filters found on social media apps like Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook and TikTok. Some of them are pretty hilarious (see below) and others will make you say, “Whoa, is that my face?” These two types of reactions help to highlight the diverging perceptions that users of these AR filters are being faced with (pun intended).

Before I get into the nitty gritty, let’s first highlight how these AR filters actually work, and who is creating them. The AR filters are essentially active photo editing tools. They use computer vision and AI to detect facial features that your phone camera sees and changes them to fit the rules set by the creator of the filter. The computer vision creates a topographic map of your face and works to overlay the filter graphics onto that map. This allows the filter to add things like floppy dog ears to your head or give you unnaturally plump lips. The trivial or humorous tweaks the filters provide may seem insignificant, but they are actually quite technologically advanced. The rise of real time filters was made possible by the sophistication of neural networks and AI processing power.

There are quite literally armies of people working to create these filters. The filters available on Facebook are made by third-party creators through Facebook developed software called Spark AR. In the first year the company opened its platform for anyone to create filters, over 400,000 creators released some sort of filter effects. Spark AR is user-friendly and allows even beginner to create simple effects. There is a Spark AR Community group on Facebook where creators can show off their filters, which has helped to enable collaboration while also pushing the software even further. In an interview I read with a popular filter creator, the introduction of filters in Instagram stories has allowed creators to not only debut their filters but also gather feedback from their followers.

Screenshot from Spark AR website

So now that we know how the filters work and who is actually making them, let’s talk about how they are affecting users. Many users really enjoy AR filters and lenses. They give users the ability to “try on” different kinds of jewelry or see how they would look with certain kinds of makeup. Users can pick a filter that may reflect how they are feeling in a particular moment and really use the filters to outwardly express themselves to their social media followings. I won’t lie, as I wrote this post, I flipped through the filters on Instagram and some of them are really cool. I totally understand how they could be a positive addition to your social media persona. Like my new Medusa vibe I’m trying to get out there.

Creators of the filters also see many benefits. They are able to really explore artistic boundaries that may have been out of reach without the introduction of the AR technology. Creators of filters that go viral are able to connect with their social media communities in ways they may not have been able to before. In the interview with the popular creator, she talked about how creating filters allowed her to explore her interest in technology and AR applications and it actually shifted her course of study and future professional goals.

However, on the opposite end of the spectrum there are filters that are causing lots of problems. Mostly these filters are characterized as “Beauty” filters or filters that are augmenting a user’s face to match stereotypical beauty standards. In most of the articles I came across, young women are the most negatively affected by these types of filters. The filters are doing things like making your nose thinner, erasing blemishes, lifting your eyebrows, and plumping your lips through the use of distortion effects. These distortion effects are available in many different filters and make up the most popular filters on both Snapchat and Instagram.

This picture has the distortion effects of the Naomi filter from Snapchat, and I can attest that I look way worse than this picture is indicating so the filter is a success at subtle distortions.

Distortion filters are not only contributing to body dysmorphia issues, but also creating a stark difference between a girl’s perception of herself in reality versus her social media perception. This difference creates anxiety and complications around navigating between digital identity and authentic identity. Some girls may be able to properly navigate these choppy identity waters while others may get very caught up in trying to merge these two identities which is where the mental health impacts lie.

There are quite a few researchers currently studying the overall effects of distortion effects in AR filters on teens mental health and self-esteem, but the results of these studies are still being interpreted. With lots of social media companies doubling down on AR, I believe the impacts of these filters will become even greater over the next few years as more filters with unattainable beauty standards are released. Companies like Snapchat and Facebook have publicly stated that they ban effects that clearly promote eating disorders or encourage cosmetic surgery procedures, but is that enough to halt the overall negative impacts to a girl’s self-image? I suppose only time will tell, and in the meantime let’s hope users are getting more laughs out of the filters they chose rather than anxiety.

Sources:

https://www.technologyreview.com/2021/04/02/1021635/beauty-filters-young-girls-augmented-reality-social-media/?utm_source=morning_brew

https://www.theverge.com/2019/11/22/20963747/ommy-akhe-instagram-filters-spark-ar-augmented-reality

11 comments

  1. Great post-Erin! This raises the discussion of how AR tools should be evaluated. Overall, there should be a more ethical deployment of this type of filtering. Clearly, there is a lot of potential for anyone to get caught up in body dysmorphia and becoming complacent towards positive habits, like healthy eating, or exercise. In an age where we can also deepfake your entire face, it becomes even more problematic. In my mind, it all goes back to our intent and moral stance. If we use social media to be something that we are not, we will only be fooling ourselves in the long run. However, if we use social media to stay connected to our friends and family, learn and discover new hobbies or activities, or speak up about political issues, then we will foster connection, belonging, novelty, and an atmosphere for people to have their voices heard.

  2. The effect of social media on people’s long term mental health is something that I think is a really important topic. The filters are a specific component of social media apps that reflect the good vs bad nature of it. The filters can be very funny to use between friends (I always screenshot when my friends send me one) and companies can use them to subtly sell advertisement through as well, which is great for their top line. However, I think things go sideways when people use the filters to make themselves look better because they don’t feel very confident naturally. Consistent use of those filters will make the confidence issues even worse. I think social media apps need to be thinking of ways to prevent people from getting sucked into using these beauty filters on a consistent basis.

  3. shaneriley88 · ·

    I remember my grandmother always saying before for a photo, “make sure you get me good side,” or people saying she/he “is just so photogenic.” It’s wild to think how things changed once phones gained rear-facing cameras. Can you imagine, say, using a filter to alter looks in line with a trend and then receiving targeted ads for acne products or diet programs? You highlighted some excellent points. I wonder if parents now have the “cellphone talk” with children/teens. I’d honestly put some AR filers’ adverse social proclivities on par with some of the old targeted tobacco adverts. As per usual, great post. You ‘crushed it’!

  4. Jie Zhao · ·

    Another great topic that reveals the implicit biases in technology and social media! I remember my first time using filters was on Snapchat – specifically, the dog filter where it sticks the tongue out, and since then I’d apply a filter most of the time when sending snaps to others. And after using filters for a long time, it definitely has unconsciously deepened our perception of beauty – which most of the time is light skin, slim face, plumped lips, etc. The issues that come with beauty standard is definitely not new, but I think what’s unique with filters is that an algorithm and AI determine the standard of beauty whereas putting on make up is more customized and the person can have more control of using different make up techiques to enhance individual’s features.

  5. conoreiremba · ·

    Excellent post! My first interaction with filters was on Snapchat and as more and more became available, it was just a painful reminder that I was clearly getting too old for Snapchat, and I have since parted ways with the app. I definitely see the positives as you mentioned, but for me, filters just highlight how dangerous social media has become especially for younger users. You give some great examples and I have also seen this with younger males who utilize filters to try to make themselves look more “ripped” for pictures they post. In some cases, it can even exasperate issues of online bullying. You raise an interesting point on how to curtail the use of these filters that are promoting dangerous habits though but it seems like a very subjective area to be effectively policed going forward. Like you, I just hope in the future we are getting more laughs than causes of concern with filters. And to tie onto Shane’s comment, I think the last one really got your “good side”.

  6. sayoyamusa · ·

    Love this post! You’ve raised excellent points while entertaining with your lovely pictures! I’ve never thought seriously of people/technology behind these AR apps, but creators seem to take advantage of the transparency of social media contents, which is a great reminder of the power of collective intelligence. I couldn’t agree more about the concerns of stereotypical beauty standard as well. Your blog has inspired me so much that I had a quick Google search and found an interesting article. Apparently, not only girls but also businessmen will care how they look…? (but I’m not sure how many of them use this app in fact.)
    Here’s the link: Shiseido releases AR makeup filter for men to use during Zoom meetings https://www.timeout.com/tokyo/news/shiseido-releases-ar-makeup-filter-for-men-to-use-during-zoom-meetings-032521

  7. olivia_levy8 · ·

    Great post, I appreciated the hands on research that has clearly been done. I think the beauty standards argument is completely valid and a perspective that I have never looked at Snapchat filters from. I have fallen victim to this when I was at Sephora the other week buying a sunscreen and the employee helping me described wearing it as “basically putting on an instagram filter”, obviously I bought it. There is also this new norm to edit photos to be posted on instagram, not with a filter but using another app to edit ones body to look a certain way or remove blemishes. I think these may be doing more harm than good, but I also can’t help but think that if this makes someone more confident and they look at themselves and feel good, why does it matter? I am unsure where I come out on this argument but think it is a great post.

  8. Chuyong Liu · ·

    Love the post and the pun, Erin! I have long been a user of filters and for a good amount of time only have my pictures took with filters! Now looking back at that period of my life, I feel very bad that I don’t even have many “normal” pictures taken. I felt like I lost some of the true memory. I love that you have also explained the benefit of filters from the creators’ point of view, I have never really think about all key stakeholders that are involved in the craziness of filters.

    I still remember the Huawei scandal that they automatically filter any white/yellow round objects with moon effects just to fool everybody who is taking pictures of the moon that the phone is really amazing that it can even capture the details of the moon. Huawei’s bad behavior actually reminds me of myself, deeply in love with using filters to change how I look just to be more attractive on social media. That is when I stop using distortion filters and try to love the way I look.

  9. OK. I love this post. Nice self-experimentation. I was always puzzled a few years ago why Snapchat positioned itself as a “camera” company rather than an AR company. It seemed a much better branding that you have eloquently expounded on here.

  10. Excellent post Erin! The correlation between the technology and mental health is pretty disturbing. Especially as younger generations grow up not knowing another way it can get really scary. It has been interesting to see this technology evolve on Snapchat, Facebook and Instagram. I am very curious how they will combat these issues moving forward.

  11. Divya Jha · ·

    I really enjoyed reading your post, Erin! Thanks for sharing how these armies create AR filters. There was a time when I used to have so much fun using Snapchat filters and entertaining my friends with them. Until it got boring. I also remember how popular the ‘blue’ filter had gotten – I think it had a blue hue, made people’s faces more angular, etc – so much so that it was so easily identifiable when people uploaded pictures using that particular filter. Which brings me to the point – while these filters are fun, they shouldn’t start making people hate (or god forbid, forget) how they look without them!

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