Since TikTok Can Turn Users Into Avatarized Versions of Themselves, Will the Proteus Effect Kick In?

As a general rule, when people create a virtual world avatar for themselves, most tend to opt for a conventionally idealized version of their offline selves  — younger, more symmetrical, in better shape, and so on. Basically, hotter.

TikTok, everyone’s favorite social media app controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, has taken that to the next inevitable stage with Bold Glamour, a new machine language-driven augmented reality filter which basically avatarizes a person’s real appearance in real time

The Bold Glamour filter, now used over 16 million times since its release last month, contours your cheekbone and jawline in a sharp but subtle line. It also highlights the tip of your nose, the area under your eyebrows, and the apples of your cheeks. In addition, it lifts your eyebrows, applies a shimmer to your eyelids, and gives you thick, long, black eyelashes. It has, as the name implies, a glamorous effect. The aesthetic itself is impressive. However, the really amazing thing is how well it functions. The filter doesn’t glitch when your face moves or if something like a waving hand interrupts the visual field, as filters usually do. 

There’s obvious concerns that this is yet another social media app that will only worsen users’ self-esteem, especially for vulnerable young women and girls.

At the same time, I’m also curious how Bold Glamour might relate to the Proteus Effect. That’s the phenomena discovered by Stanford researchers who found that when people embody an attractive avatar in a virtual world, they themselves exhibit more confidence in real life:

When embodied in a physically attractive avatar, volunteers were more willing to talk about themselves, and move closer to other avatars, showing more open, self-confident friendliness.  By contrast, people controlling plainer-looking avatars remained more distant.

Since these results were derived from a controlled, non-online environment, [researchers] applied them in nature, so to speak, in World of Warcraft.  Did it make a difference if a WoW player had an attractive, taller avatar?  Again, they found similar results:

The more attractive characters were, the higher level they achieved. Also, the taller characters were, the higher level they achieved.

Might TikTok’s Bold Glamour effect also achieve a similar effect?

Nick Yee of QuanticFoundry, who co-authored the original Stanford study, has a mixed opinion on that notion:

“Psychologically, it will likely be a double-edged sword,” as he puts it to me. “For some people, it will likely boost self-esteem and confidence (e.g., digital versions of ‘dress for success’) but for others, it may exacerbate or create body perception issues with an ideal/transformation that is impossible to attain in real life.”

At any rate, Nick points out that Bold Glamour is really just an iteration on existing technology. I.E., makeup.

“I think if we remove the panic from the ‘tech’ itself, then facial contouring is something that makeup has enabled for a long time and so the concept of real-time face contouring isn’t actually new. In this sense, we’ve always been ok with some degree of ‘face filters” in real time with ‘old tech’.”

He argues that we’ll probably come accept filters like these, up to a point. 

“In terms of social norms, we’ll adopt some of these real-time filters as being perfectly acceptable. For example, most people have the ‘touch up my appearance’ filter on by default on Zoom (and may not know they’re using it). I think in general people are OK with minor automated touch ups like skin smoothing.”


That sounds right to me, especially since Zoom and other video apps end to make people look worse than they actually appear offline.


Personally I suspect even most TikTok users will soon hit Peak Filter, quickly getting bored with avatarizing their appearance. And the pendulum will swing toward videos with no filter at all, putting a premium on authenticity. When everyone can look glamorous, glamour quickly seems less so.

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