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‘What X are you?’ – how we curate our identity via IG’s latest filter craze

More than a quick bit of fun, the AR filters are a way for us to learn about ourselves and how others see us

One question had been haunting me: “What Disney character are you?” In the height of Chanukah, mere hours before a work deadline, Pumba from Lion King was my assigned identity. Then I was roasted by Instagram as a potato (“Which carb are you?”), placed in House Slytherin, and was notified that I had the spirit of an 85-year-old. Suddenly, Instagram had become flooded with a slew of “Which ____ Are You?” filters that flipped through a set of pictures in a category and landed on a randomised option as an assessment of self. 

In Greek mythology, Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection, staring until he died; today, a (relatively) milder form of narcissism comes in the obsessive staring into phone screens. These visual flipbooks are a silly way to gamify the selfie, a way to do a little bit of reflecting while sharing your new personality assessment. In a society where we’re left questioning who we are and why we’re even here, sharing a video of the wholesome, even self-deprecating “What’s your spirit animal?” takes the edge off the modern need to endlessly share. We leave crumbs of our identity to reinforce our place in community and in the cultural construction of memory. We share to energise our connection to one another. Collectively laughing at an augmented reality (AR) filter is equal parts world-building and the human-ness of episodic connection.

We’ve been finding reflections of ourselves in media as far back as the first tellings of the story of Narcissus. But before social media, self-expression flowed at the dinner table or around the campfire, reflected in the pages of a journal. Personality quizzes have always been a great way to trigger that reflection, triggering a pseudo-intimacy of getting to know yourself. From enneagrams to BuzzFeed quizzes, determining what personality type you are is an addictive puzzle of human nature. Instagram introducing AR into the story feed starts with the need for a realistic human face to participate (lo and behold my dog will never know which Pokemon she is?), the starting block of the race for deeper understanding. The idea of authenticity and the cult of the “real” self can be overwhelming. An opportunity to look inward and claim some understanding of who we are in a single question and set of options, no matter how trivial and ridiculous, feels that much more current. 

“In some ways, these (AR) filters will probably have an impact on people’s desire to present themselves in a certain way, but I don’t particularly think they’re a call for attention,” says Dr Danielle Wagstaff, psychology lecturer at Federation University Australia. The author of a study about Instagram’s effect on the brains of influencers, Wagstaff focused her research on how social media affects our methods of comparing ourselves to other people. “Filters such as these are not particularly damaging to individuals’ concern for their appearance, but someone who might normally feel self-conscious may be more willing to post a picture if they can do it to show which group they got assigned to.”

Popularity breeds saturation, meaning the endless parade of randomised identity signifiers has all but completely replaced the high-gloss selfies, dog pictures, and miniaturised arts and crafts in my feed. And believe me, I’ve taken a spin on every last identity roulette wheel. “It’s a trend, and trends go viral. Maybe we’re all feeling a need to know ourselves more,” says Katie Jane Hughes, a beloved celebrity and editorial make-up artist. As opposed to the instantaneous pop of “Which ___ Are You?”, Hughes shares extraordinarily detailed, educational, and unparalleled how-tos in a beauty language all her own. “But if using those filters make you happy, that’s great!” she says. 

“Filters such as these are not particularly damaging to individuals’ concern for their appearance, but someone who might normally feel self-conscious may be more willing to post a picture if they can do it to show which group they got assigned to” – Dr Danielle Wagstaff, psychology lecturer, Federation University Australia

The Disney filter has spawned countless AR sequels. Mike Chau is the goofy genius behind the FoodBabyNY Instagram, an account in which the software developer highlights the best in New York’s food world in pictures featuring his three adorable children. In addition to a “Which FoodBaby Are You?” filter (I’m a total Sammy), Chau has created roulette effects to determine which cookie you are from the menu of viral bakery Chip New York City and “Which Wu-Tang Member Are You?”, among others. “I also have fun ones like Pizza Hat and Fry-brows,” he says, effects that drop the eponymous food items over your face the way in which he does with his kids on the main feed. Chau has found a way to personalise the AR opportunity to engage with the community he’s developed. “Anybody can submit their own filter. That’s what people like doing: funny, fun, randomised things,” he says. “I thought why not? It could be a good chance to get exposure on the account if people use it and share it around.”

That kind of exposure is essential in the beauty world, and these personalised filters lock into the eagerness to identify with others. Donning a pizza hat isn’t a beauty move, it’s a choice to engage with a specific group. “As a software developer, I know that people are into the latest, newest thing,” Chau says. “People like having a connection to the characters or the people they care about. People that follow me, they feel like it’s a way to relate to my family.” 

While beauty accounts are often minimised by critics as superficial, these filters show how essential personality and connection can be to the industry. Unfortunately, advertising underwrites our use of social media platforms; Instagram is motivated to encourage your creation and interaction so they can learn you as well as you do yourself, with the end goal of targeting you. And we make that trade to get in on the joy of the game. That fun then spreads quickly, as watching any video with an AR filter allows users to try it out themselves, to save the code in their app. Searching for filters is a cumbersome process, but picking up on one and joining the in-group follows a simple push of a button. Suddenly, every one of your friends is finding out which font they are. “At first I thought, ‘Aww, this is fun.’ But then it quickly became a little annoying,” Hughes says. “It was too much.”

The speed at which the AR fad has spread seems intrinsic to human nature. We’re driven to find connections even in the simplest of contexts, Dr Wagstaff explains. “There are paradigms in psychology known as minimal group paradigms, where if you simply tell a group of people that they are, for example, either in the circle group or the square group, they will begin to identify more strongly with their group, the in-group, and perceive themselves as having more in common with the members of their group and having less in common with the members of the other group,” she says. “This need to identify with the group is a way in which we learn to understand ourselves and who we are, and forms part of our group-based self-identity.”

And while that kind of simplistic group-forming could have negative consequences, such as unnecessary biases and prejudice, Wagstaff doesn’t see the quick-twitch fun of Instagram filters as having that downfall. “We don't really take very seriously which garlic bread we are when we think about how we identify ourselves, or how we might describe ourselves to others,” she says. The videos themselves reveal how little weight we put on the algorithm’s judgment of our character – best case scenario the post ends with a cutesy smirk and giggle, and at worst a performative face of disgust. But even that expression of discontent is a curated element: If you dislike it that much, you could just not post it. Then again, a little self-deprecation goes a long way.

But it hasn’t always been finding out which inanimate object you are and eyebrows made of french fries. Before this particular batch of AR filters hit critical mass, Instagram culled some of the filters it deemed more objectionable in an effort to curb unhealthy self-image. In October, the platform banned face-changing filters that promoted plastic surgery. But the effect of social media may not be able to be contained by clearing a single filter or set of choices. “Even skin-softening filters are giving people skin complex,” says Hughes. “You become immune to how it looks and then you see your face with no ‘Paris’ filter and maybe feel disappointed.”

Since Instagram has allowed filter designers to share their vision with the world, the door has opened to rectify those problematic effects and keep things fun – the potential for better, more positive beauty filters included. “If I were to make a filter, it’d be placing makeup on the face, as that’s my thing,” Hughes says. “With the skin-softening BS, I haven’t found one filter that doesn’t modify the face structure or skin texture.” While we dream about ideal beauty filters, the AR quiz boom doesn’t show any sign of slowing down. Eventually, we’ll have to settle for “Which AR filter are you?”