How swapping your face with someone else’s became a ritual of friendship in a digital age

Why we’re all obsessed with face swapping

POPSCI: A scientific slant on what’s trending in popular culture

The internet is a weird place, where nothing and no one is quite what they seem. And with 55% of people saying they believe ‘it’s important to adopt another persona online’, it’s hardly surprising that each internet denizen commands numerous digital identities. The photos you upload to Facebook (where you’re mates with your mum) probably differ from the fleeting impermanence of the shots on your Snapchat story, or that career girl image you project on LinkedIn.

Against a backdrop of fluid and multiple identities, face swapping fits right in. Snapchat, Face Swap Live and Masquerade (which was recently acquired by Facebook) all facilitate the latest in rituals of friendship in a digital age — literally putting your face on someone else’s, before sharing the evidence with everyone you know. “Is it not possible that internet culture, from face swaps to Pepe the Frog, have desensitised us to the surreal?” asks Angus Harrison for VICE. “The face swap doesn’t just mutate our own identity, it allows us to trade ours with someone else, creating distinct, shared facial characters from these glitchy, flawed hybrids.”

And there’s a reason you get those shivers down your spine when you see your aunt’s face swapped with her cat’s or your boss’ face on your own. It’s because it screws with your in-built facial recognition — an area of the brain called the fusiform face area. It’s why the face swaps featuring people we know are so spectacularly weird. Studies show that even seeing a smiley face — like this :) — lights up the fusiform face area. But when you see a grotesque or deformed face, it also lights up an area of the brain linked to hallucinations and synaesthesia. Sigmund Freud defined encountering the unfamiliar in a familiar setting as the ‘uncanny’ — a ‘thrilling state of arousal’. In this sense, that creeped out feeling face swaps give us is not unlike the emotional state that draws us to horror movies or rollercoasters.

And altered emotional states — whether we find something hilarious, horrifying or just plain weird — are integral to anything we share on our feeds, facilitating a shared emotional experience with our friends out there in cyberspace. “If we entertain some kind of comparison between in-person and online relationships, which one wins?” asks psychology professor John R. Suler in his book Psychology of the Digital Age. “The in-person world offers rich physical sensations … online certainly provides us with a wonderful supplement to in-person relationships, but in the long run, for most people, we should question its validity as a substitute for real-world encounters.” Not only does face swapping — and sharing the results — demonstrate proof of your real-world relationships, it provokes a physical, neural response among the people that see it, which digital friendships so often lack.

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Written by Lore Oxford, deputy editor at Canvas8

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