For a moment, we thought the technology had us all figured out. It seemed as though our iPhones cataloguing our faces carefully, analysing data and seeing our truth. We thought Instagram filters were telling us who we were. But the ‘What X Are You’ Instagram Stories filters were, instead and of course, randomly picking characters, objects and words to align with us. And so, their existence was almost entirely pointless.
If you aren’t sure what the ‘What X Are You?’ filter is then I’ll explain via this imaginary conversation between me and my parents. Me to parents: “Well, you’re alone in your bedroom and you put your face in front of your phone camera and then a randomised image comes up, of, like, a Labrador or a Disney cartoon villain and then you laugh or do a face at whatever was picked and you post it publicly on the internet for everyone you know to see.” People enjoy that do they, my dad would say. And I’d probably say: honestly, I don’t know if enjoyment is the right word.
These Instagram filters emerged immediately after Christmas 2019 – I first used ‘Which Pokemon character are you’ on the 27th of December – while everyone was bloated and bored on their phones. The first wave of these filters were innocent and banal: think, ‘How old do I look?’ or ‘Which cat are you?’ Within days there was a category for everyone. Pop astrology huns had their filters – What Star Sign Are You Meant To Be With?, What’s Your Major Arcana Card? – and so did the film heads – of course, I am Hereditary of the A24 oeuvre.
Two weeks later, we were hitting Gen 2: the filters went post-logic, wonky and wilfully rogue. A Crazy Frog-esque nightmare. I watched a friend upload ‘What cheese are you?’, ‘Which Bright Eyes album are you?’ and ‘What Kind of Hole Are You?’ (blackholekeyholehellhole – hell hole) within the space of two minutes. Since anyone with basic understanding of Instagram and tech can upload their own filter, these are now the games of the wild west: a race to the bottom for the most depraved meme artists. This was firmly the territory of shitposters, irony bros, people with a humanities degree and the specific corner of the internet that enjoys those deranged sexual Shrek images.
As someone reasonably vain (prefers Instagram), who is exhausted when attempting to create free content so is often guilty of minimal craft (ideal for Instagram), and does at least one personality-based quiz a week, I spun the wheel more than a few times. At first I thought it meant something, but quickly realised, along with everyone else, that you can just re-do the filter as many times as you want to get a result you feel suits you. A ‘How hot are you’ result at 99 percent? An immediate post with a smug face as narration. A dull result when you saw the filter that said you’re only fries and not a burger, and a thick sandwich better suits your aesthetic and branding. You spin the wheel again until you get the burger. Each post translates as something like, ‘If I were a Cartoon Network character I would SO be Mojo Jojo… LOL.’ AKA I’m a bit of a bitch when pressed, wear a lot of black and am hot enough to feel comfortable claiming an ugly monkey with a big old brain.
Whether you might be a first- or second-gen user, we accept selfie trends like this because we’re bored and must create content – remember the Meitu craze, the “kawaii anime makeover app” and subsequent fallout, or the more recent plastic surgery-cum-Instagram Face filters? We accepted this specific trend because we’re consistently curious about ourselves. Buzzfeed has a lot to answer, well-versed as the company now is in creating quizzes that quench our desire to waste time then exhale a low "ha", sitting alone, looking at our results. We then share said results enthusiastically. Instagram has exploited our inherent narcissism. Do we want to be given a rating for our own features via a carousel filter? We certainly do.
But in a 'personality' quiz with randomised results there is only one answer: I am the sort of person who would engage with this trend. Indulging yourself in this fun is admitting you’re basic and can happily stomach the sight of your own face. Increasingly, you may be the sort who thinks themselves above these filters, and so fires them up ironically – but obviously there is no true ironic use. It’s all just joining in. Vitally, this is the easiest of all content creation: all you need is a bed to lounge on and a face. It costs no creativity, labour, significant thought process. Just spin the proverbial wheel and keep on spinning.
In a meaningless age of esoteric and health-related quizzes, astrology and WebMD, we want completely pointless fun that provides maximum self-serving insight in the shortest amount of time. And so this manic, dumb, lazy filter micro-trend encapsulates a very specific current mood: we want attention and to be left to our own devices. We want to learn something new about ourselves but also to feel 'seen' exactly as we already know we are – or have crafted ourselves to seem.