iPhone XS: Is This New Selfie Feature the iPhone XS's Version of Bendgate?

Selfie innovation can be fraught. 

Advanced algorithms, depth control, and faster sensors. In language gadget geeks live and die for, Apple described the new iPhone XS and XS Max cameras as miracle tools which will “turn your pictures into showstoppers.”

The camera features took the limelight in Apple’s strategy to promote the phones. But last week as the XS found its way to fans, criticism began to mount that the front-facing cameras were taking hyper-airbrushed selfies. Users described the photos as “doctored” or looking like a “porcelain doll.” In true internet fashion, Reddit users quickly dubbed the controversy “beautygate”, implying that the selfie-backlash was perhaps this year’s “bendgate.

Apple's new selfie setting has come under fire. 

Unsplash / Steve Gale

Why are we in another selfie technology controversy?

Hasn’t the internet exploded over selfie enhancements before? Absolutely.

In 2016, Samsung came under fire when a British blogger noticed her phone camera smoothed out her freckles by default. Snapchat first came out with filters in 2015 and has often courted controversy by facilitating often racially insensitive content.

With the abundance of photo editing apps and filters (Hefe or Lo-Fi?), it’s not necessarily the filters themselves that started the hubbub. (Although the controversy that edited photos set unrealistic standards of beauty still persists.) Facetune, for example, is the most-downloaded app in the Photo and Video category of the app store — in 127 countries, they proudly boast — and their editing easily outstrips the iPhone XS and XS Max in terms of high-fashion style outrageousness.

So what exactly was it about the XS’s tools that missed the mark? When it comes to editing photos, users want control. Sure, they know Samsung adopted beauty filters years ago, but they’re explicitly leveled from 1-8 and come with moods like sweet or fresh. In the technology race to win consumers, Apple seems to have pushed the line too far on two fronts: first, by assuming users would want photos beautified automatically, and second, by editing to the point of an aesthetic uncanny valley, where users felt the photos didn’t quite look like themselves. How unnerving is it to take a photo of yourself and end up with…not you?

Did Apple's selfie features take automatic beautification a little too far?

Unsplash / rawpixel

Some users hypothesize that the skin smoothing is a side effect of Apple’s post-processing technology, which melds together multiple images to create an enhanced one. Plus, people can’t seem to figure out how to turn the skin-smoothing effect off.

While innovating with photo technology, companies and people are still figuring out the push and pull between identity and technology. No one mistakes you for an actual puppy or thinks your local florist freshly constructed the ethereal flower crown in your latest selfie. But more subtle changes that shift our perception of self are messier.

In our daily forays in the internet, we drown in ads on a minute-to-minute basis. But with authenticity on the rise, “realness” holds much more social currency, which leaves Apple to pay the price for a feature that quietly sneaks in skin-smoothing effects.

Why is there so much pressure to introduce these features?

People like to look good in their photos. Combined with an increasingly image-focused internet and the cultivation of personal brands, features like these probably aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. And experts who don’t want to automate their photo editing will still find a lot to like about the XS which the famous photographer Pete Souza once likened to a DSLR camera.

That perspective may resonate more in Asian countries where the prospect of easy photo-editing isn’t an apocalyptic end to authenticity, but rather a liberating force. Like the prospect of high-quality camera, a slurry of apps like Meitu and BeautyCam democratize beauty.

In Asia, before posting a photo with you and a friend, you might edit both your and his or her face without asking. It’s a courtesy — you want your friend to look good too, right? And if you like the way you look, you can build confidence to take more selfies over time (a perspective an employee of Meitu shared with The New Yorker).

By sheer percentage of iPhone owners, a company like Apple heavily influences selfie culture, and in turn, how we see ourselves. Companies walk a tricky line in melding tech with what a culture defines as beautiful in a given moment, and trying to show us what they think we want.

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