Image created by NPR’s Grace Widyatmadja /TikTok
When Annie Luong opened TikTok recently, she couldn’t escape the filter that has dominated her feed: Bold Glamour.
“I just saw a lot of girls turn this filter on and their reaction to the filter and how it was such an advanced filter. So I wanted to try it,” said Luong, a 28-year-old who works in management consulting in Toronto.
This filter goes far beyond putting a face-altering layer over a person’s photo. TikTok has remained tight-lipped about how Bold Glamor works, but experts say it uses advanced artificial intelligence to transform a face into something completely new. Noses are thin, chins are more sculpted, cheeks are raised and eyes light up as a process known as machine learning reshapes people’s faces.
The results have captivated legions of TikTokkers – Bold Glamor has been viewed on the platform more than 400 million times since it was released last month.
“OK, this looks pretty cool, but it just didn’t feel like reality,” Luong said recently, gazing at her poreless, shimmering face recreated by Bold Glamour.
Some of the millions of TikTokkers who have interacted with the filter argue against it for how eerily convincing it is at creating shine, thinner, more movie-star versions of ourselves that, unless closely inspected, can go undetected.
Unlike previous social media filters, Bold Glamor doesn’t go wrong if your face moves in a video. When you pull your cheeks or put a hand over your eyes, the filter shows no sign of itself.
“It’s different,” said Luke Hurd, an augmented reality consultant who has worked on filters for Instagram and Snapchat.
“It’s not cartoony. It doesn’t drastically age you, turn you into a child, or turn your gender upside down.” he said. “And there are a lot of times where you have to look down in a corner and see, ‘is there a filter on this person?’ And lately it’s been yes.”
Hurd said the filter uses a type of AI known as a “generative resilient network,” which is a technical way of saying it compares your face to a database of endless other faces and spits out a brand new, airbrushed-looking you.
“It’s simply taking pictures that have been fed into it and targeting parts of your face and then trying to match them,” he said.
That blur between reality and fiction is something that can have a lasting impact on your sense of self, said Renee Engeln, the director of the Body and Media Lab at Northwestern University.
“Your own face that you see in the mirror suddenly looks ugly to you. It doesn’t look good enough. It looks like something you need to change. It makes you more interested in plastic surgery and other procedures,” Engeln said.
Engeln said a feature like Bold Glamor can quite quickly distort a young person’s understanding of what a face is supposed to look like, potentially exacerbating mental health challenges linked to self-image.
“It adds to this culture where a lot of young people feel really alienated from themselves, really struggling to just be in the world every day with other people without feeling like they have to perform and appear to be a , they’re not,” she said. “So I think it’s a good reminder that these filters should be taken seriously.”
Whether they generate wildly impressive images based on simple prompts or chatbots that can hold sometimes unsettling conversations, new artificial intelligence tools have captured the minds of many. To seize the moment, TikTok and other social media companies are racing to incorporate the latest AI magic into their products.
TikTok would not comment on the design of the filter. Nor would it discuss how the feature could potentially worsen people’s self-image.
Instead, a TikTok spokesperson issued a statement saying the app encourages creators to be true to themselves, noting that videos on the platform flag when users create content using filters like Bold Glamour.
In Toronto, Luong said she’s encouraged to see so many on TikTok, mostly young women, using the filter to talk about how social media perpetuates unattainable beauty standards.
Many who commented on her own video using the filter said they prefer the version of her without the filter.
“But then there were a few comments where it’s like, ‘oh, it’s improving so much, you look so much better, you should always keep that filter on,”’ Luong said. “It was much more vicious. It made me feel worse about the filter.”