CHICAGO -- I don't need the Snapchat gender-swap filter to show me what I look like as a man -- I can just look at any picture of my dad at my age and voilà.
But posting opposite-gender pictures using the filter was all the rage last week.
And even in this age of gender exploration, some young people who grew up in a world where it's OK to question every facet of their identities had complaints: Everything from condemning jokes about how many people were going to realize they were transgender to outrage that Snapchat was enabling the trivialization of what is a difficult journey in a trans person's life.
Rose Dommu encapsulated it perfectly in her post on the website of "Out" magazine -- "This filter is literally an instant transition, and the humorous way I'm seeing it shared is ... not cute. My Twitter mutuals don't go with me to every painful laser hair removal appointment ... don't shove a needle full of estrogen into their thigh twice a month ... They don't understand the pain and endurance required for trans people to get themselves even close to their ideal presentation -- so no, I certainly don't want to look into my phone screen and see what some app developer has decided the most perfectly feminine version of me is. Nor do I want to see memes poking fun at the very real violence trans folks face."
The cynic in me was revolted that Snapchat, whose 2017 IPO basically went nowhere because the service had become nearly irrelevant, was riding high on a wave of publicity that included breathless news coverage of instances in which someone fooled their parent or a potential love interest on dating platforms. All without the context of the physical violence, poorer health outcomes and high death rates that transgender people face.
But more importantly: Does creating an instantaneous and idealized version of the self as the opposite gender help or hurt individuals questioning their identities, or in the process of affirming their gender? Or (BEG ITAL)anyone(END ITAL) who chooses to enhance their faces with the many, free or cheap augmented reality apps that are readily available to use with their smartphones?
Past research has a story to tell.
As far back as 2007, the researcher Nick Yee, along with researchers at Stanford and the Palo Alto Research Center popularized the Proteus Effect, a phenomenon in which people behave in ways that correspond with avatars -- digital representations of the self -- that project an idealized version of the self.
In their paper "The Proteus Effect: Implications of Transformed Digital Self-Representation on Online and Offline Behavior," Yee and his co-authors found that people who were given taller avatars in an online game negotiated more aggressively than users given shorter avatars. They found that "both the height and attractiveness of an avatar in an online game were significant predictors of the player's performance."
More importantly, behavioral changes that started in the virtual environment transferred to subsequent, real-life, face-to-face interactions.
Jeremy Bailenson, a professor of communication in the School of Humanities and Sciences at Stanford, recently found much the same when investigating interactions in augmented reality. In this case, the simulation was created by wearing goggles that layer computer-generated content onto real-world environments.
When people interacted with a virtual person, they appeared to be influenced in similar ways as to when they had a real person physically next to them. Subsequently, their interactions in the real, physical world changed after the virtual experience. For example, people avoided sitting on a chair they had just seen a virtual person sit on.
"We know from the phrases 'Dress for success' that the way you represent yourself is important, and not just to others," Bailenson told me. "We infer how to act based on our own identity, we use self-perceptions to take cues from ourselves. We know that if people are using these representations [such as avatars and images of the self] often, that it does change how they act. The question is how we'll change when identity is fluid and we're beaming ourselves everywhere constantly."
Bailenson said he doesn't use any social media and was clear he has no easy answers for the gender-swap app conundrum or any other instance of projecting a highly stylized image of the self. We need more research, especially as the technology becomes faster and cheaper.
But (BEG ITAL)I(END ITAL) say to anyone out there looking to transform: You are beautiful. If you feel technology can help the "real" you come forward, you may just be on to something.
(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group