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If technology helps the real 'you' come forward, go for it

Esther J. Cepeda on

CHICAGO -- I don't need the Snapchat gender-swap filter to show me what I look like as a man -- I can just look at any picture of my dad at my age and voilĂ .

But posting opposite-gender pictures using the filter was all the rage last week.

And even in this age of gender exploration, some young people who grew up in a world where it's OK to question every facet of their identities had complaints: Everything from condemning jokes about how many people were going to realize they were transgender to outrage that Snapchat was enabling the trivialization of what is a difficult journey in a trans person's life.

Rose Dommu encapsulated it perfectly in her post on the website of "Out" magazine -- "This filter is literally an instant transition, and the humorous way I'm seeing it shared is ... not cute. My Twitter mutuals don't go with me to every painful laser hair removal appointment ... don't shove a needle full of estrogen into their thigh twice a month ... They don't understand the pain and endurance required for trans people to get themselves even close to their ideal presentation -- so no, I certainly don't want to look into my phone screen and see what some app developer has decided the most perfectly feminine version of me is. Nor do I want to see memes poking fun at the very real violence trans folks face."

The cynic in me was revolted that Snapchat, whose 2017 IPO basically went nowhere because the service had become nearly irrelevant, was riding high on a wave of publicity that included breathless news coverage of instances in which someone fooled their parent or a potential love interest on dating platforms. All without the context of the physical violence, poorer health outcomes and high death rates that transgender people face.

But more importantly: Does creating an instantaneous and idealized version of the self as the opposite gender help or hurt individuals questioning their identities, or in the process of affirming their gender? Or anyone who chooses to enhance their faces with the many, free or cheap augmented reality apps that are readily available to use with their smartphones?

 

Past research has a story to tell.

As far back as 2007, the researcher Nick Yee, along with researchers at Stanford and the Palo Alto Research Center popularized the Proteus Effect, a phenomenon in which people behave in ways that correspond with avatars -- digital representations of the self -- that project an idealized version of the self.

In their paper "The Proteus Effect: Implications of Transformed Digital Self-Representation on Online and Offline Behavior," Yee and his co-authors found that people who were given taller avatars in an online game negotiated more aggressively than users given shorter avatars. They found that "both the height and attractiveness of an avatar in an online game were significant predictors of the player's performance."

More importantly, behavioral changes that started in the virtual environment transferred to subsequent, real-life, face-to-face interactions.

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