Meta Face Is Coming
Mark Zuckerberg’s waxy visage foretells the future of Instagram Face.
The Unpublishable is a weekly-ish newsletter covering what the beauty industry won’t tell you — from a reporter on a mission to reform it.
Every time I see Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, he looks less like a human and more like a cyborg possessed. A decommissioned droid from I, Robot. A dead-eyed Bicentennial Man. An off-brand RealDoll, but haunted. The animatronic manager of the Chuck E. Cheese band. A Sim of a Madame Tussauds sculpture.
Last week, when Zuckerberg announced that Facebook corporate was officially rebranding as Meta — no longer a social media company, but “a metaverse company” — I finally understood: The billionaire’s waxy visage, all but indistinguishable from an A.I. rendering, foretells the future of Instagram Face.
Meet Meta Face. At least, the earliest iteration of it.
But first, the basics. The “metaverse” that Zuckerberg seeks to build? It’s essentially a virtual world; “an ‘embodied’ internet where we are … inside the computer via a headset or other reality-modifying technology of some sort,” as Vice explained it. In the metaverse, you — in the form of an animated avatar, or a “meta” you — can theoretically go to work, hang out with friends, play games, visit art exhibits, and more; all without ever leaving your living room. Think The Matrix meets Ready Player One meets World of Warcraft… except it’s just your life.
Here’s a preview:
In a live demo, Zuckerberg praised the metaverse as the future of technology, as a community-centric tool for “connecting with people”. In (non-virtual) reality, the origin of the metaverse is a little more sinister.
“The metaverse was born in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 [novel] Snow Crash, where it serves as entertainment and an economic underbelly to a poor, desperate nation that is literally governed by corporate franchises,” Brian Merchant reported for Vice in July. (Last week’s Big Oil hearings before the House Oversight Committee, concurrent to the Meta reveal, come to mind.) He described Stephenson’s vision as an “overtly dystopian context of mass poverty and violence; one where an immersive, shared 3D digital environment where anything goes offers most people’s only opportunity to escape from an intolerable reality.”
“In almost no version of what I imagine does this new universe not descend into an orgy of violence and terror and auto racing,” said physician and public health reporter James Hamblin of Zuckerberg’s proposal. I agree. It’s all very creepy and concerning.
Equally creepy and concerning: If we enter the metaverse en masse (which, like… will we? really??), the metaverse will no doubt start to dictate society’s real-world beauty standards, just as Instagram does today.
You’re familiar with Instagram Face, I’m sure, on sight if not in name. The phrase refers to a now-ubiquitous blend of Insta-approved facial features inspired by the platform’s most popular photo-editing tools. As I wrote for Fashionista in 2019:
It’s that uniformly wide-eyed, smooth-skinned, pouty-lipped thing that Eve Peyser of the New York Times hilariously (and accurately) described as “a sexy baby meets Jessica Rabbit.” It’s the artificial, filtered look that makes it hard to tell if you just scrolled past a selfie of Emily Ratajkowski or Bella Hadid. It’s the aesthetic that prompts you to ponder lip injections… but, like, super subtle lip injections?
Grafting the online effects of Photoshop, Facetune, and filters onto a flesh-and-blood face requires a number of offline “enhancements” — surgical procedures like face lifts and nose jobs, non-surgical procedures like injectable fillers and neuromodulators, and aesthetic procedures like dental implants and laser hair removal. Instagram Face isn’t born, then, but bought.
According to Dr. Anna Guanche, a board-certified dermatologist and celebrity beauty expert based in Calabasas, Calif., the prevalence of filters has created a frenzied demand for fillers from public figures and private citizens alike. The numbers add up: The worldwide medical aesthetic market is projected to be worth approximately $26.53 billion by 2024 — a significant leap from $10.12 billion in 2016.
“One of the biggest things I tell my patients is, ‘You want to look more like your filtered photos — what can we do to make you look more like them, so people don't see you in real life and go, what?’” Dr. Guanche shared with a small group of journalists at an event hosted by Allergan, the makers of Botox Cosmetic.
It sounds like a plot point from a sci-fi film, but today, it's actually entirely possible to make your digitally-enhanced avatar a reality — and quickly, too — with an array of non-surgical injectable innovations.
As you can probably tell from that depressingly dystopian dermatologist quote, Instagram Face hasn’t been great for citizens’ mental health. It’s been pretty fucking awful for it, actually. Reports suggest that beauty standards influenced by social media — that is, beauty standards that are physically impossible in the corporeal world — can contribute to appearance-related anxiety, depression, dysmorphia, low self-esteem, self-harm, and even suicide.
Instagram Face hasn’t been a boon for physical health, either. The procedures it inspires can result in side effects ranging from temporarily annoying to permanently devastating; over-the-top skincare routines that promise “glass skin” and other untenable markers of perfection have been linked to a rise in chronic skin issues and sensitization.
What Instagram Face has been good for is Instagram. Over the past couple years, the app strategically transitioned from social media platform to social shopping platform. Now, not only does it distort your perception of beauty — it sells you everything you need to distort yourself to match. It shepherds you into product purchases. It connects you to injectors and surgeons. It even suggests mental health experts to help you manage the psychological issues that it itself creates and exacerbates.
Reminder: Instagram is owned by Meta.
Considering the above, it’s fair to wonder and worry about the beauty ideal the metaverse might inspire: Meta Face, or the real-world approximation of the unrealistic facial features popularized by our animated metaverse avatars.
What will Meta Face look like? Mark Zuckerberg’s expressionless meta-man and increasingly inhuman appearance may hold some clues.
If Instagram Face is modeled after real faces augmented with fake features, Meta Face will be modeled after fake faces… period. Lifelessness is the starting point. It’s reasonable to assume that IRL Meta Face will evoke the aesthetic of computer animation: bright eyes, featureless skin, rounded noses, pink cheeks, stiff hair, defined hairlines. The overall effect is smooth and slightly cartoonish — doll-like, even — in a tech industry interpretation of the ultimate beauty ideal: youth.
And oh, does the tech industry idealize youth. The obsession goes far beyond the obviously “enhanced” and off-putting features of leaders like Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk; all of whom look younger (albeit weirder) today than they did 20 years ago. A Guardian report from 2014 described Silicon Valley at large as a “youth cult” that pushes 30-somethings to take “extreme measures to overcome the sector’s ageism.” “Ageism in Silicon Valley Is Causing an Uptick in Plastic Surgeries,” declared TIME Magazine the same year. In 2020, a Washington Post investigation highlighted the appearance anxiety of an average Silicon Valley employee: “His ultimate fear: being banished to the cultureless provinces, unemployed and alone, with the rest of the saggy-skinned suburbanites.”
This anxiety doesn’t stay in Silicon Valley. When the pressure to override the most basic traits of one’s earthly existence — aging, emotion, expression, reaction — is forced upon those with access to the most cutting-edge advancements in social technology, it’s forced upon all.
So forgive me for mocking Zuckerberg’s slow descent into cyborg territory, but the bizarre beauty behaviors of tech’s elite demand dissection and discussion. These are the people creating the framework for filters. These are the people programming the algorithms. These are the people conceptualizing metaverse avatars. These are the people enforcing society’s beauty ideals. (Which is how Meta was always meant to function, by the way. Facebook was originally developed to rank the women on Harvard’s campus by hotness.)
Silicon Valley has already engineered a world where “beauty” is defined as divorcing our humanity; where reminders of said humanity — a pimple, a wrinkle — can prompt an existential crisis. For all its talk of “connecting people”, image-based social media has done more to disconnect us from ourselves, from our essential nature, from true beauty.
How much more damage will be done by the metaverse and Meta Face?
And how much more can the skin, the psyche, and the human spirit take?