Photo filters reflect our society, says author Berit Glanz. A conversation about media-critical vigilance and the playfulness of pictures of us on the web.
taz: Ms. Glanz, the Tiktok filter “Bold Glamour” recently caused a stir on the internet. Among other things, it makes our skin appear more even and makes you supposedly more beautiful. What happens to our viewing habits?
Berit Shine: A common thesis is that such a filter makes us all feel ugly in real space because we encounter each other more beautifully virtually. I would rather say that such filters teach us to understand that everything in virtual space is filtered – that is, precisely because of this massive contrast.
So don’t you think that filters like these have a negative impact on our self-image?
I know, a common assumption is that filters like the “Bold Glamour” make sure that after using them you don’t like yourself anymore and then want to help with Botox injections or cosmetic surgery. I wouldn’t say that’s necessarily the case. Especially with Tiktok, the use of filters is rather playful. Young people in particular have a completely different level of media competence, after all they grew up with the Internet.
As I was able to find out for myself, filters like “Bold Glamour” don’t work equally well for everyone. While some become beautiful, others look strange. Why is that?
The filter ensures larger eyes, fuller lips and smoother skin on all faces. He also modifies the chin and cheeks. This doesn’t work equally well for all faces, because not all faces look better with puffy lips or a defined jawline. People are just very different and accordingly the procedures of these filters do not always have the same effect.
In your volume of essays you show that filters reproduce “sexist and racist stereotypes”. Can you explain?
The ideals that filters are based on are based on societal concepts of beauty and these are often sexist and also racist. Many beauty filters lighten the skin, for example, because this corresponds to the widespread Western beauty norm. This is of course extremely racist. But this is a social problem that is also reflected in technological developments.
So you think you have to start before the technological development?
Clear. Filters are mirrors of our society. And as such, they also show what is going wrong.
During the pandemic, the number of those suffering from eating disorders has increased. Children and young people who are read by women are particularly affected and a connection to the increased use of social media is assumed. How do you explain that?
Our viewing habits have had to change and adapt quickly in recent years. Especially in all the video conferences, you constantly encountered yourself alongside others. Before, it was rather rare to be able to observe yourself speaking. Now we know how we look from different angles; not always great. Of course, this has its effects. Here, too, there are enough studies that show that young people, especially those who are read by women, do not necessarily feel better after using Instagram.
It’s not just the filter technology that does this, but also the content of the images. The social graph is crucial here: with whom do I compare myself and how? And that’s where media literacy comes into play. These technological developments are not going away. So what we have to learn is how to deal with them and that we also pass this on to our children.
Depending on the generation, parents are often not trained in dealing with (social) media.
Yes that is a problem. Actually, you have to go into social media together with children or young people. Or spend so much time there yourself that you understand what topics and debates are important at the moment. For example, if you now have a teenage son and you don’t know who Andrew Tate is, you have a problem. Because you don’t grasp the moment of entry into this anti-feminist radicalization.
They advocate that parents explore platforms like Tiktok together with their children and use them in a playful way. Are filters the new disguise?
You could say that. Filters can be super funny: suddenly you’re a cat or you’re on a stage; Children (and not only them) think that’s great. I think you have a good start if you do it together. But of course, this has to be accompanied and that is currently not being done competently enough, neither by educational institutions nor by many parents. This is also due to the fact that this field is developing so incredibly quickly. And taking the time to say: Now I’m learning Tiktok or something about incel radicalization, that’s just a lot of work!
Berit Shine was born in northern Germany in 1982 and studied theater studies, modern German literature and Scandinavian studies. Her debut novel Pixeltänzer was published in 2019. As a cultural journalist, she writes about memes, digital literature and other aspects of internet culture. She is a member of the editorial board of the digital feuilleton 54books and writes a column for them FAS. Berit Glanz has been living with her family in Reykjavík since summer 2021.
Unfortunately, it is mainly women who read people who are often deprived of the fun of social media platforms. An example you give in your book that illustrates this well is the Snapchat dog filter. Would you like to explain that briefly?
The dog filter is an extreme example of how parts of society take and destroy things that they find beautiful. This is actually a harmless AR filter that puts a dog’s ears and nose on top. Young women liked to use it for a while, but the filter was then sexualized and discredited as the “Hoe Filter”. But that has to do with the sexist mechanisms that are deeply rooted offline and online. What was nice here was that in response, it became a trend to pick up and subversively appropriate the term “Hoe” in connection with the filter.
AR stands for Augmented Reality, but filters like “Bold Glamour” use AI, i.e. Artificial Intelligence. Could you explain the difference?
With AR, the image of reality is static, and something is placed on top of it. The computer recognizes your face, knows where the eyes and nose are and puts a dog’s nose on the latter. There are two images on top of each other. With AI there is only one image and that is calculated live. So nothing is projected onto reality. The difference is that I can now move or talk with the filter and it adapts because it always continues to calculate live. AI filters aren’t entirely new and have been part of some AR filters before, but they’re becoming more compelling as computing power continues to improve. That will definitely be exciting.
Are filters art?
Yes, I would say so. People program filters as digital art at first. The transitions here, as elsewhere in art, are fluid. Then there are fashion labels that want to use the filters, and that immediately turns into advertising. It all flows together because filters are of course incredibly good branded vehicles. Great filters are used by an incredible number of people. This is of course a visibility for a brand that can hardly be achieved in any other way. People who produce these aesthetic filters are immediately in demand. It’s a skill that pays well, it’s not like that in all areas of art.
Berit Shine: “Filter”. Series Digital Image Cultures. Verlag Klaus Wagenbach, Berlin 2023, 80 pages, 12 euros
Let’s see how long it stays that way when Open AIs like ChatGPT can do all this better than humans at some point. Distinguishing between what is real and what is staged is becoming increasingly difficult. Or?
I think it will always be a game of cat and mouse between technological development and human reaction to it. What has to change is actually media competence and the reception of images and moving images. And not only there: the voice filters, which are all just coming onto the market, will still play a major role.
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