As I was finishing my book Stranger Faces, a new app took social media by storm. It was called FaceApp and it allowed you to age your face, to see what you would look like at fifty or at eighty years old. I never downloaded it, but from the screenshots that appeared on my timeline, the versions of one’s face it spat forth seemed startlingly vivid, without falling on either side of the uncanny valley—neither too cartoonish nor too realistic. Within days, conspiracy theories cropped up. The company was Russian; the app was a cover; nobody was reading the terms and conditions; FaceApp was collecting faces. These fears may have been exaggerated, but they were not unfounded. The problem of the twenty-first century may well be the problem of the digital face.
It began with Facebook, founded in 2004 and named for the analog paper book that Harvard students used to identify one another, ostensibly to put together study groups, but actually for dating or, more likely, hooking up. The first version of the app, Facemash, was a “Hot or Not” ranking system for photos scanned from a set of online “face books” from different Harvard residential houses. This binary hot/not, yes/no model has continued to pervade the sociality of internet technology, from the thumbs up/thumbs down to the swipe left/swipe right.
Facebook’s relationship to the book has faded—the visual logic of photographs and videos has taken over the site—but its relationship to the face seems to have intensified. Over the last couple of years, users have reported being asked to “upload a photo of yourself that clearly shows your face,” purportedly to prove that you’re not a bot. Many suspect that there is, again, data harvesting afoot here, as facial recognition programs are being tested by companies like Google, Microsoft, and IBM. The worry is that this data will be used to surveil or target specific people. We have already seen facial recognition technology being used this way—in China, for example. News about the protests in Hong Kong that began in 2019 emphasized the various measures protestors are taking to prevent being identified—from scattering lasers to knocking down cameras.
Privacy concerns aside, the political problems with facial recognition abound. Your face can be used to “dox” you—to locate you and disseminate information about your address, your job, and your affiliations. Your face can be stored and run through programs that adjust its expressions and speech patterns—even for words you’ve never uttered. Perhaps worst of all, your face could be misidentified, especially if you don’t fit the data set on which these algorithms were built. Recent studies show that “when the person in the photo is a white man, the software is right 99 percent of the time. But the darker the skin, the more errors arise—up to nearly 35 percent for images of darker skinned women.” Facial recognition technology, for instance, can mistake black men for each other, black women for black men, and black people for gorillas. The power of the Ideal Face doesn’t just sway our cultural preconceptions; it actually sorts people into hierarchies enforceable by law and physical force. Police are already using facial recognition technology to identify suspects; U.S. security agencies are developing it for airports and borders.
What is most disconcerting about this perhaps inevitable slide toward a surveillance state based on the face is that we, the people, have chosen it. Self-selected identity has become state-sponsored identification. Your elective profile is now used to profile you. To a certain extent, none of this is new: consumer culture, popular culture, and high art have all historically co-opted our fusiform area to their advantage. Sex sells; faces sell. What interests me is how this reiteration of age-old tensions about the face—look at me/don’t look at me—changes once that face becomes digital currency. What sorts of play become available or precluded? Beyond political efforts to thwart it, how have we adapted, aesthetically, to facial profiling technology?
In one sense, responses to this technology, both positive and negative, have revolved around an old and familiar model of the Ideal Face: the idea that it represents identity, authenticity, transparency, truth. In an era of “fake news” and anonymous trolls, putting your face to your name and your words is seen as worthy, “say it to my face,” the ultimate rejoinder. But I find it fascinating, then, that this idea of the digital face—as proxy for a real face—has emerged at the same time as a panoply of technologies designed to take “playing with faces” to another level.
Apart from the emoji, which, as I’ve described, we prefer to keep opaque and love to stack and stagger, we now have the capacity to apply a whole range of filters to digital images of our own faces. You can add or remove hair or makeup; you can change gender; you can layer your face with animal features, both realistic and cartoonish; you can merge your face with another person’s; and most popular on the FaceApp, you can time travel by aging yourself.
Jia Tolentino argues that we are now in the Age of Instagram Face, a cyborgian amalgam forged by social media, plastic surgery, and the app FaceTune:
It’s a young face, of course, with poreless skin and plump, high cheekbones. It has catlike eyes and long, cartoonish lashes; it has a small, neat nose and full, lush lips. It looks at you coyly but blankly, as if its owner has taken half a Klonopin and is considering asking you for a private-jet ride to Coachella. The face is distinctly white but ambiguously ethnic—it suggests a National Geographic composite illustrating what Americans will look like in 2050 … “It’s like a sexy … baby … tiger,” Cara Craig, a high-end New York colorist, observed to me recently. The celebrity makeup artist Colby Smith told me, “It’s Instagram Face, duh. It’s like an unrealistic sculpture. Volume on volume. A face that looks like it’s made out of clay.”
This face might seem to be the contemporary reductio ad absurdum of the Ideal Face. But the shadows of stranger faces lurk here, in the Instagram Face’s figural hybridity, racial ambiguity, clay-like sculptural thingness, animal features, blank sublimity, eerie layeredness, and, of course, in its origin point and favored playground: the internet.
Some of these new face technologies handily work to mask or disguise the face—people use them to protect themselves from being identified by the state or by employers. Others seem suited to certain changes in how we engage with celebrity culture. But for the most part, they simply represent the apotheosis of my overarching claim in Stranger Faces: we love to play with faces, to make them into art.
The digital face that I find the most interesting in this regard is the GIF. The Graphics Interchange Format was invented in 1987. While it originated as an image format with a set of shifting colors in a palette, we mostly think of it now as a brief, looping clip of film or animation. It is a matter of some debate how to pronounce the acronym GIF—its inventors lean toward a soft g like the peanut butter brand Jif, but lay users seem to prefer a hard g. The oscillation between the two seems fitting for this oscillatory form. Apps like Vine and TikTok have advanced and perpetuated its use, but its natural habitat is on social media: Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
The standard GIF usually depicts a human face in motion: whether turning toward or away from the “camera,” changing expression, shifting very slightly, or erupting—into a smile, into laughter, with a spit-take. These so-called reaction GIFs often accompany or are accompanied by text; they supplement a post or are captioned with language. They can feel like punctuation or ejaculation—an exclamation point, a question mark, the “snigger point” that Ambrose Bierce proposed or the “special typographical sign for a smile” that Vladimir Nabokov suggested.
Unlike the emoticons or emoji that emerged to fulfill those needs, a poster tends to use one GIF at a time, rather than stacking them up. The GIF does lend itself to a long, dialogic conversation, however. You’ll find on Twitter entire threads made up of GIFs, some echoing each other, others offering opposed or qualifying reactions (“more like____”). Without the original post to which they are reacting, these alternating flickers of emotion can feel redundant or baffling. A GIF isn’t more efficient than language. Indeed GIFs often induce flurries of interpretation or questions about whose face it is, or how and where it can be found.
To me, more than the emoji, more than even a filtered image of your own face, the GIF represents the furthest thing from the Ideal Face. The GIF isn’t singular but plural, a kind of language, yet much less fixed than the alphabet of emoji for which additions must be petitioned. It is rarely a frontal view and is often in motion, distorted, exaggerated, sometimes animalistic. You do not address the face of the GIF, because rarely does a person use a GIF of their own face. Rather, it serves as a temporary mask, a momentary avatar for the person who posts it, who can be of a different race, ethnicity, class, gender, and ability entirely. And yet it is an encounter, a daily aesthetic experience that compels repeated watching—not just in the iterative instance of the click, but in any popular GIF’s continued distribution and longevity as a recognizable meme over time. It is a supremely pleasurable form of face play.
The supposed glow, transparency, and distance from animality in the Ideal Face connote racial whiteness. In this, too, the GIF is its polar opposite. Sianne Ngai argues that “exaggerated emotional expressiveness” can “function as a marker of racial or ethnic otherness in general.” As Lauren Michele Jackson notes in an article on “digital blackface,” this manifests in a particularly gendered way for GIFs:
[Internet GIF search engine] Giphy offers several additional suggestions, such as “Sassy Black Lady,” “Angry Black Lady,” and “Black Fat Lady” to assist users in narrowing down their search. While on Giphy, for one, none of these keywords turns up exclusively black women in the results, the pairings offer a peek into user expectations. For while reaction GIFs can and do [evoke] every feeling under the sun, white and nonblack users seem to especially prefer GIFs with black people when it comes to emitting their most exaggerated emotions. Extreme joy, annoyance, anger and occasions for drama and gossip are a magnet for images of black people, especially black femmes.
Black femmes tend not only to carry the weight of emotional labor online, but also to serve as the vents for the expression of emotions, from happiness to sadness and everything in between. To signify affect isn’t necessarily to command respect or earn capital. And as Jackson explains, this trend follows uncomfortably from a long history of blackface in America—its appropriative violence and perpetuation of stereotypes.
But despite this troubling history, let us not dismiss the cultural dominance of the black femme face. A vast flock of black femme faces flutters across the field of the internet: GIFs of The Real Housewives of Atlanta, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, RuPaul, Angela Bassett, Naomi Campbell, Viola Davis, Rihanna, Beyoncé, Keke Palmer. And of course, the black woman with the greatest affective range, plasticity, nuance, and exposure to her face—and the longest history of taking on American affective burdens—is Oprah Winfrey. Oprah turns and opens her hands (“what did I tell you?”); Oprah leans back into someone, the barest flinch reflecting her pleasure in what she’s watching; Oprah spreads her arms, her yelling mouth wide with joy; Oprah dabs her eyes with white tissue; Oprah looks skeptical—a narrowed eye, a blink, a frown. Oprah is our reigning queen of the GIF.
My ham-handed descriptions of these GIFs are more mnemonic, more generic than their actual use, which is quite various and as subject to the play of irony—both dramatic and semantic—as that of any language. The GIF’s relationship to an actual person is attenuated, if not irrelevant: people become known as Blinking GIF Guy, or And I Oop Girl. Add filmic effects—a rapid zoom in, a shuddering blur, a visual distortion—and these strange faces become stranger indeed.
One of my favorite GIFs—I had to do an internet search to replicate it below but I chose not to hunt for its biographical origin, which seems beside the point—is of a black woman with her eyes rolling back in ecstasy:
At some point, someone—again, I don’t know who—elected to add a trippy filter to it to intensify the intended effect, which is, per the GIF’s name, “Omg Wow Yes.” This is a twenty-first century Impressionist portrait, continuously looping from two to three dimensions.
This woman’s beauty; her race, gender, class, or ability; her availability for a face-to-face interaction; her relationship to me and to the world; the time between now and whenever this clip was recorded, made into a GIF, and distorted for emphasis—none of this really matters to the effect of my encounter with it. Though I’ve never actively used this GIF as a reaction online, I see this woman’s face all the time—a one-way gaze, as I doubt she’s seen mine. This face isn’t a mirror of my soul or a window into hers. It’s a face set in motion by the force of a specific feeling, a specific moment—a punctum. It will never perfectly map onto whatever I’m feeling, nor does it pretend to. Rather it resonates with me, reverberates with an affective intensity set free from its bodily source. This strange, stranger’s face can’t be profiled or co-opted—not even by its original bearer, whom it just happened to flutter over, ripple through, with a deep and unaccountable pleasure.
Namwali Serpell is a Zambian writer and professor of English at Harvard University. She’s a recipient of a 2020 Windham-Campbell Prize for fiction and the 2015 Caine Prize for African Writing. Her first novel, The Old Drift (Hogarth, 2019), won the 2020 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for fiction, the 2020 Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction, and the Los Angeles Times’s 2020 Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, and was named a New York Times Notable Book of 2019.
Excerpted from Stranger Faces. Used with the permission of the publisher, Transit Books. Copyright © 2020 by Namwali Serpell.