Google has this week announced an important development in its approach to image editing, and filters applied to images taken via its Pixel device.
One of the key concerns in the modern digital age is comparison, and users matching themselves up, unfairly, against highly edited and crafted images of people online, which are often not representative of reality.
Various social platforms are already investigating ways in which they can address issues with comparison and filter-fatigue. And this week, Google has taken a significant step in its own approach to such, by announcing that it will be removing filters applied by default in selfie images taken on Pixel devices.
As explained by Google:
"We conducted multiple studies and spoke with child and mental health experts from around the world, and found that when people are not aware that a camera or photo app has applied a filter, the photos can negatively impact mental wellbeing. These default filters can quietly set a beauty standard that some people compare themselves against."
As a result of its investigations, Google's looking to make its filter usage more transparent, while it's also removing references to 'beauty' in its retouching tools.
"Starting with the Pixel 4a, the new Pixel 4a (5G) and Pixel 5, face retouching options are available in the camera app, but turned off by default. In an upcoming update, you’ll see value-free, descriptive icons and labels for face retouching options. And if you choose to use face retouching effects, you’ll see more information about how each setting is applied and what changes it makes to your image."
That may seem like a fairly minor step, but it's significant in the broader battle against unrealistic comparison, especially with respect to younger, more impressionable users, who are increasingly conducting more of their personal interactions online.
Here's one of the most important truths that people need to understand about social media and the content shared by people on social platforms: It is not necessarily representative of their reality.
In most cases, what you're seeing on social media is a highlight reel, a collection of that person's best moments, while leaving out all the bad, all the mundane, all the regular, everyday things that we all go through and experience, but we don't necessarily want to be posting accompanied by a cute hashtag and a smiling emoji.
And that can make social media overwhelming. When you're looking at all these holidays snaps and exercise photos from your former classmates, neighbors, work colleagues, etc. Inevitably, you're going to compare yourself to these images - and that comparison, in many cases, will not be favorable. It can make you feel like a failure, it can make you feel ugly. But the underlying truth, in almost every case, is that the comparison you're applying is simply not fair.
That's why Stories offer a welcome relief from the perfection of crafted and curated Instagram selfies - because at least in Stories you get to see a small, often goofy snippet of someone's life. That's more relatable, and harder to polish and edit, because while you can still add filters to videos, you can't use digital tools to change your personality. Short, quick videos humanize people, and reduce those unfair comparisons, which is why they've seen such a rise, and why, it could be argued that it's actually important to have a Stories option on as many platforms as possible in order to balance out the fiction of our digital storybook lives.
TikTok clips are another example of the same trend. On TikTok, while there is still a concerning focus on beauty, there's also an even bigger focus on creativity and fun, and not taking yourself too seriously. Sure, young girls wearing tight clothes still use the platform to farm for likes as a means of self-validation - which, given a third of TikTok users in the US are under 14 is a massive issue. But moving beyond the crafted selfie is part of the platform's popularity, and part of social media culture more broadly, and the evolution of social networks.
And that's an important shift - as with Google's new experiment, we need to find ways to shift away from unrealistic representations of day to day life, in order to reduce the pressure on people to be perfect, to have perfect skin, to always be in shape, always be wearing the latest fashion, etc.
Because that's not how life is. Especially right now, as we all work from home - in fact, I'm guessing most people reading this are wearing sweatpants with messy hair and tired eyes. Because that's life, that's reality, and social media has distorted that in many ways.
It now feels like there's a renewed shift back to more accurate representation, which is why this new experiment from Google is an important, and valuable, step.