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The Allure of Snapchat’s Uncanny Valleys

Photo: Gilbert Stuart/Snapchat

The war between Snapchat and Instagram is essentially over. By leveraging a larger network of users and Facebook friends, Instagram has comfortably unseated Snapchat as the place people go to share and watch ephemeral Stories. Still, while the social graph is the defining reason that most users prefer Instagram (their friends are already there, thanks to Facebook), it doesn’t mean Instagram’s features are superior.

Case in point: Over this past week or so, a number of face filters have caused a frenzy on social media. One turns a user “masculine”, with five-o-clock shadow; another turns the user “feminine”, with long hair, rouge, and eye shadow; a third filter turn the user into a baby. They’re uncanny and a bit of fun, if the general response I’ve glimpsed is anything to go by (though some may argue that it makes light of those who fall outside of the gender binary).

It’s not the first time Snapchat’s filters have gone viral. There is the now-iconic, face-slimming dog filter; the limitless potential of the instantaneous face-swap; the breakdancing hot dog. I would lay down my life for the breakdancing hot dog. But because Snapchat mainly functions as a private messaging app and not a public-sharing platform, the most viral demonstrations of the software are not actually happening on Snapchat itself. Oftentimes, demonstrations of its filters are shared in public spaces like Twitter. Snapchat’s photo editing tools have become useful outside of Snapchat’s network (much like the way Twitter has become writing software, to be screenshotted and uploaded to Instagram). It’s hard to say what a viral tweet that relies on a Snapchat filter is worth, but I bet it’s not nothing.

Why is it, then, that Snapchat has continued success getting people to talk about and use its filters, while Instagram – the dominant platform – might as well not have face filters at all? Of the three classic Snapchat filters I previously listed, Instagram has only cloned the dog face for its own app. This is anecdotal but I rarely see people I follow use Instagram’s options, and when I do, they never elicit the “Oh, I’ve gotta try that” attitude that Snapchat regularly does.

While Snapchat and Instagram have the same general vibe – bright colors, cutesy designs, sparkles and kaleidoscopes – they clearly have different intents. Instagram’s filters follow the overall platform ethos of making people look as attractive as possible. An Instagram filter is almost aspirational. Instagram’s filters, for the most part, never really distort the user beyond recognition.

On the other hand, Snapchat’s filters are less concerned with making you look good. They want to show you a part of yourself that you might not have ever considered, whether that’s what you’d look like as a different gender, or as a baby, or standing next to an anthropomorphic meat tube. Snapchat’s filters are deliberately off-putting and a bit bewildering. They don’t show you what you’d be like if you looked better or cooler, they show you what you’d look like if you were substantively different (or the laws of nature were different, in the case of the hot dog). It’s this design philosophy – this willingness to be weird and unsettle users – that gives it a leg up over Instagram, which has little in the way of an identity when it comes to filters.

It’s also why snaps regularly find themselves circulating outside of Snapchat, and why celebrities download their unflattering photos and post them to Twitter for a laugh. And it’s how Snapchat stays relevant even as its competitor and develop its reputation even as Instagram continues to eclipse it in size. Snapchat, in many ways, feeds everything else. It almost makes you wonder what would happen if the company ever shut down.

The Allure of Snapchat’s Uncanny Valleys