Invasive Social Media Technology Is Everywhere and No One Seems to Care

Excessive porn has desensitized us to graphic sex, and the 24-hour news cycles has numbed us to graphic trauma. But has internet culture, from face swaps to Pepe the Frog, made surrealism normal?

by Angus Harrison
Apr 21 2016, 5:15pm

Angus (left, and I suppose right) tries a Faceswap

On Wednesday, in a now clearly ill-advised move, Snapchat updated its ever-changing run of in-app effects to include a Bob Marley filter. The face-swap, released as a celebration of 420, was essentially ready-made blackface, altering the user's skin tone and giving them dreads. This pissed a lot of people off, but while some had an immediate and serious conversation about the racial politics of blackface, everyone seemed relaxed about the general idea of fusing their faces with the features of long-deceased public figure.

It's a regularly-tread idea that access to excessive pornography online has desensitized us to graphic sex, and similarly that 24-hour uncensored news cycles have desensitized us to graphic trauma. With that in mind, is it not also possible that internet culture, from face swaps to Pepe the Frog, have desensitized us to the surreal? Put simply: why don't we find anything weird anymore?

Snapchat filters, if you haven't seen or used them for whatever reason, are a series of lenses that map special effects onto your face in selfie mode. They range from mild eye bulges all the way through to 1920s Cabaret-style make-up and they've gone down a storm. Everyone from Rita Ora to Serena Williams is using them.

The filters have been welcomed as just the latest manifestation of lol-random culture. Yet because of this reputation, Snapchat—an app primarily used by teenagers—has been getting away with surrealist experiments in self-portraits completely unnoticed.

Because they're not just random. They're unsettling and subtle. The glazed anime-esque emotional excess of the crying effect, the haunting featureless character of the yellow smiley lens, or the sinister vogueing of the make-up filter all go above and beyond the realms of "goofy," bypassing what we'd normally perceive as the limits of our imaginations. They're a bizarre, surreal, and often sinister chain of self-modifications, taking as the starting point a constantly moving image of our own faces.

Sure there are some conventionally "funny" settings—handle-bar moustaches and aviators are basic dress-up by anyone's standards—but that doesn't account for the Dali-meets-Pixar limits of your eyes blown up to the size of tennis balls while you vomit a rainbow or the one where your mouth is stretched like a rubber-bands, with the eye sockets hollowed out, with dog-ears and huge wagging tongues. It doesn't account for a kaleidoscope of colors descending across your face like transcendental acid flash.

Picasso on Snapchat, as imagined by the author

If, like Kanye, we imagine a parallel with the career of Pablo Picasso, then straightforward selfie-taking is equivalent to his Rose period: honest, humble reflections on the actuality of the human form that, while still filtered to a point, treat their subjects as life-like. With this in mind, Snapchat's face-swap is the selfie entering its Cubist phase. No longer content with realistic portrayals we have developed a desire to contort our own forms.The face-swap, for example, doesn't just mutate our own identity, it allows us to trade ours with someone else, creating distinct, shared facial characters from these glitchy, flawed hybrids.

Yet, at most, you've probably just heard your mom describe it as "a bit weird" when her entire face is slapped onto your dad's bald head during a lazy Sunday afternoon back home. That's not to say we should expect everyone to immediately parallel face-swaps with the collagism of the Dadaists, or the wonky-stylings of Simon Quadrat, but it's fascinating just how unremarkable everybody thinks it is. Odd is the new normal, and the internet has created a safe-space for surrealist expression.

This legacy for mass avant-garde has been part of internet culture from the get-go. From the first flash animations on, online media has gone hand in hand with perverse imagery and left-field humor (see: Salad Fingers). Yet, as the internet ceased to be the domain of bedroom-dwellers, and spread its reach across the world via social networks and smartphones, the borders of "the weird part of YouTube" grew wider and wider so that today, surrealism is for everyone.

Lowest common denominator forms of humor and communication have reached bold and bizarre heights. Millions of Vines are uploaded everyday, all of them sharing perpetual, trance-like qualities associated with psychedelic film-making. Videos litter the Twitter feeds of funny soccer accounts featuring dancing manifestations of gargantuan bobble-headed Premier League managers. Last year one of the most-shared videos on the internet featured a 6 ft man inside a giant water balloon—a video that was also soundtracked by a William Basinski style ambient soundtrack.

We haven't just normalized the weird, we've turned into something basic. We now exist in a time where the most culturally unadventurous people on your timeline are expressing themselves with short videos of goats screaming; where your mom is trading faces with your dad and sending it to your aunty; where you can communicate embarrassment with a pictograph of a monkey covering his eyes and nobody will bat an eyelid.

You could write this all off as gross over-analysis of a few silly filters, but it's because we don't see Snapchat as intentionally avant-garde that we immediately let our guard down. It's another sign of how the sensory assault of the information age has blunted our capacity for shock. Every doctored Snapchat, and the flippancy of their distribution, proves just how comfortable with bizarre imagery we've become.

If sexting is the internet age allowing a generation to communicate the limits of their sexuality, and in the process lose touch with intimacy, perhaps Snapchat is doing the same to their imaginations.

Follow Angus Harrison on Twitter.

internet culture