There’s no escaping the pandemic, but bizarre Instagram filters and Zoom backgrounds give us the illusion that we can.
I am alone in my apartment, as always, and I’ve just replaced my left eyeball with an orange springing out of its peel.
A mile away, a friend, also home alone, is taking her seat—every seat, actually—at the table in The Last Supper, yelling as the camera pans down the row of disciples and her face replaces that of one man after another. Another friend is watching a mouse dressed as the Pope dance across her kitchen floor. A third is smiling while a strange man wraps his arms around his throat.
Many of us have nowhere to go, no one to see, no communal experience to be a part of, no shared feelings other than dread. But the platforms of the pandemic—Zoom, Instagram, Snapchat, FaceTime—all let us pretend that our life is more than just four walls. With augmented-reality filters, users can mess with their appearances in elaborate ways. Before the coronavirus hit, out-there virtual effects were something of a novelty, but now they’re becoming a major mode of passing the time, giving us the technology to make our faces interesting enough to keep on sharing.
All day long, I flip through Instagram stories, and watch one augmented diary of life inside after another. These tools now feel like part of a basic vocabulary for talking about a day during which nothing at all happened—this was the day fresh fruit bloomed out of my eye socket, this was the day books poured from my mouth. When the pandemic is over, this is how many of us might remember spending this time: looking into a front-facing camera, at all hours, with unlimited options for making ourselves hot or scary or unrecognizable.
Every week since the beginning of the pandemic, Mitsuko Ono—a 31-year-old augmented-reality designer in Manila—has been releasing zany new Instagram filters. There’s “BLINK!,” which replaces a user’s eyelashes with a row of tiny fingers, and “Baby Face,” which makes a baby’s arms and legs sprout out of the user’s head. On the strength of these oddities, she’s become a widely known member of the platform’s growing filters-and-effects community.
“I enjoy seeing people of all ages, from different parts of the world, play around [with] my work,” Ono told me in an email. “It inspires me to create more, knowing I can bring happiness to people in spite of the situation we are all in.”
Where once fashion bloggers and travel influencers were racking up thousands of new followers a day, people such as Ono are Instagram’s latest stars. During the pandemic, they’re also some of the only people on the platform who can create anything worth sharing.
These filters are so popular that the big hits have been used tens of millions of times in a matter of weeks. According to Instagram, the most popular effect right now is “Revolution,” which duplicates the user over and over in diagonal rows stretching back into the distance—a crisply arranged army of one. Also near the top is an effect called “AAAHHHHHHH!!!,” which puts the user’s face on a fish that is flying around the world, then speeds up an evolutionary process until the fish becomes a human.
David O’Reilly, its creator, is best known for a filter called “It’s Always You,” which creates the illusion of an AR you holding a phone and videochatting with real-life you at the same time, then moves on to even trippier scenarios—your face as a continent, your face as the world. More than 30 million people have posted videos of themselves using it, which have collectively been watched more than 700 million times, he told me. He recently made a supercut featuring split-second clips from as many of the videos as he could, including one by the comedian Nick Kroll.
The pandemic seems to be accelerating the use of AR, but the technology’s rise has been several years in the making. In 2016, AR had its first truly global, mainstream moment with Pokemon Go, an app that turned the entire world into a game and has been downloaded more than a billion times. Since then, Instagram and Snapchat have released tools that allow people to create their own effects without requiring any coding experience. “It’s so easy that probably anybody [age] 12 and above can actually make their own filter,” Maya Georgieva, the director of the XReality Center at the New School, told me.
During lockdown, she’s seen filters getting both wilder and even more popular, because “you can transform instantly,” she said. AR is so mainstream now, Georgieva added, that it’s even showing up in schools and workplaces. Teachers might still raise an eyebrow at a weird Zoom background that covers a student’s entire face, but they probably accept at this point that some kids are going to call in with a background from Bikini Bottom. Even one of your colleagues might.
Plopping your face into a bizarre fantasy scenario or covering it with words or mutating it into something else entirely is changing how we use photo-sharing apps, Georgieva told me. “Instagram and Snapchat used to be about documenting time with friends, but now nobody is hanging out with friends; there’s no happy hour, no spaces for social engagement,” Georgieva said. Instead, these platforms are providing tools for people to illustrate their feelings “of fear, shock, loneliness, wanting something.”
Augmented reality is also now one of the few places where we can do things with large groups. If I use a goofy filter and then my friend sees it and manipulates it in a different way and then her friends play with it too, we all become part of a collective event—at a time when other group activities are not happening. “If something gets adopted, and you see it across the platform, even if it’s a representation of [the creator’s] feeling, it becomes such a shared experience,” Georgieva said. We’re all toying with the idea that distorting reality might be more fun than living in it—even if just for a few seconds.
Liam O’Neill, a a 32-year-old digital artist based in Newcastle, England, is currently working on an effect for a phone’s rear-facing camera, which would create the illusion of walking through an art gallery. To him, the pandemic has inverted the motivations for posting on Instagram. Usually, you share photos and videos to prove that you’ve had them, and that their specialness or uniqueness says something special and unique about you. “But with AR, you have the chance to share an experience,” he told me. You can visit his virtual art gallery, share it, and someone else can then go immediately—no moment of envy.
Teen Vogue recently explored the rise of virtual makeup, and luxury brands have been dabbling in augmented-reality fashion and interior design for some time—trends that will likely only accelerate now that many Americans have less disposable income. As with O’Neill’s gallery idea, people may get even more intentional about using AR not just to manipulate their own appearance, but to simulate the freedom of being in another space. By the time this pandemic is over, augmented reality may be permanently integrated into our visual culture, as a key part of how we present ourselves—and how we remember ourselves.
Yana Lysenko, a 25-year-old graduate student who lives in New York City, told me she’s keeping an archive of the best Instagram filters she has been using while the city is shut down. “All of these [will serve] as a reminder of what I was doing during quarantine and how they cheered me up during this stressful period,” she told me. “My friend called me a ‘quarantine Instagram-filter curator,’” she added.
One of her recent posts showed her face pasted over the body of a strangely proportioned man, dancing to a song that’s glittery, but sort of dark. “For me, the dancing ones are especially fun because I love to go dancing, and I can’t right now,” she said. “It’s almost comforting to have these scenarios where I’m dancing.”
An Instagram effect cannot actually trick me into thinking that I am wearing new clothes or that my apartment is more than 400 square feet or that my face is any different from the one I looked at yesterday, but it can make me feel as if I’m keeping track of time. Calling into Zoom with a surprising new facial feature or a funny backdrop can differentiate a day from the one before. I live alone, so many of my memories of these months will be digital ones anyway. During the first week of the stay-at-home order, my sister called into the family Zoom with a pixelated Niall Horan coming out of the top of her head; in the third week of the stay-at-home order, she turned into a shark. Now I know how many of my friends look with their faces squished into the form of a pangolin’s. These are the events of my life, apart from whatever I am making for dinner.
“I think we’ll look at this pandemic and be able to see a lot,” Georgieva told me. She imagines that one day she’ll be able to walk around her hometown of New York City and pull up some of this moment’s history on her phone. “There will be so much created—of this mosaic of people and faces and their emotions and places they are and places they wanted to be.”