Please Tell Me Something, Anything, About Myself

Instagram’s “Which ____ are you?” augmented reality filters offer fictional catharsis for depleted souls, yearning to be assessed.

by Eileen Cartter
May 10 2020, 8:05am

The question of when truth became ephemeral would be a very interesting topic for another place and another time. For now, I am more invested in which nu metal band I am.

In the interest of finding psychological filler for these long stretches of day that become night, Instagram’s augmented reality quiz filters (you know, the ones that present a virtual flipbook of randomly calibrated answers to a “Which ____ are you?” sort of prompt) have become something of a cursed salve. Personally, the ritual of doing them has taken on a mollifying effect: I stare at myself on my phone screen as the app scans my facial features, careening towards the window for better lighting, eyes glazing over as I watch the options flick past on my forehead to determine, at random, which Twilight character, NESCAC college, chain restaurant, aspect ratio, or New York City subway line I am. When I assess the result, I love to do a little smile at my screen.

A quiet buzz comes over me as I perform this ritual (to say nothing of the intrinsic and hopeless dread because the app is gathering my facial data, among other things). It feels akin to the anti-anxiety trick of snapping a rubber band against your wrist, or applying slight pressure to the fleshy space in between your thumb and forefinger. A friend says she “takes” a “Which Hieronymus Bosch painting are you?” assessment each day, interpreting the result like a tarot card reading.

These sorts of AR quiz filters, which began appearing on the Instagram app late last year, have a simple, easily customizable premise, thus swiftly spinning out from the standard (“Which Disney character are you?”, “Which Pokémon are you?”) to the niche (“Which Soho House are you?”, “What kind of hole are you?”). Every day seems to bring with it a new, increasingly unhinged quiz, and I look forward to taking each one I come across several times over in order to survey its array of randomized results, and what those results might mean to me.

It seems we’ve managed to move past the relative order and logic (?) of the Buzzfeed personality quizzes of yesteryear, onto the blissful, somehow more narcissistic (??) mayhem of Instagram AR filters. The progression makes sense: we like to be told things about ourselves—even if, it seems, those things make are technologically generated by random selection, and bear no logical connection to our personal notion of identity—and we like to have the option to share those things... maybe right now more than ever. The feeling of being assigned a meaningless designation, seemingly bestowed upon you from on high, having no say in the matter whatsoever? Weightless.

The appeal seems to lie in the catharsis of assessment or declaration, however baseless. As Lior Phillips wrote earlier this year, “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.” Phillips posits the AR quiz filters—and what a “randomised option as an assessment of self” says about how we see ourselves, and how others see us—as a facet of the beauty industry, a way to “gamify the selfie” as a hyper-contemporary extension of the Narcissus myth. “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.”

Gillian Wearing signs
Gillian Wearing, “I’m desperate,” from “Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say,” 1992-1993. © Gillian Wearing, courtesy Maureen Paley/ Interim Art, London.

Of course, that desire to claim a sense of personal truth—and to observe the personal truths of others—isn’t a new one. The AR quiz filters conjure a (cursed) visual parallel to Gillian Wearing’s 1992-93 series, Signs that Say What You Want Them To Say and Not Signs that Say What Someone Else Wants You To Say, in which the artist approached passers-by on the street in South London, asking them to write a thought on a piece of paper and hold them up for a photograph. The resulting portraits reflect the mood of an early-’90s Britain in economic decline, and the sentiments behind the signs, understandably, feel especially poignant now: anonymous declarations of “I hate this world!”, “I like to be in the country”, “Help!”, and perhaps the most famous: “I’m desperate,” held up by a weary-looking man in a suit.

“A great deal of my work is about questioning handed-down truths,” Wearing once said about the project. “I’m always trying to find ways of discovering new things about people, and so in the process discover more about myself.” What can we glean from ascribed truths, doled out by random functions? The AR filters require no accountability—you can very much retake each quiz until you get the proverbial “sign that says what you want it to say,” as it were. Perhaps the answer is, as Hannah Ewens phrased it, that “this manic, dumb, lazy filter micro-trend encapsulates a very specific current mood: we want attention and to be left to our own devices.”

Yet the filter does offer what Phillips refers to as a “pseudo-intimacy of getting to know yourself.” Maybe, through constructed “fate,” we can learn new things, about ourselves and about each other. What’s that saying, about opting to wade into truth’s shallow waters? Again, another place and another time. For now, to be briefly seen feels like a nice glass of wine.

Augmented Reality
Gillian Wearing