Google will make clearer when you've edited a selfie

And Snapchat is on board with the plan.


You’ve probably seen the super edited, airbrushed-to-death pictures all over Instagram and wondered if you’ll ever attain that incredible level of perfection. Or you’ve whipped out a smartphone to take a selfie and thought your skin looked smoother than usual. Truth is, lots of images online are edited, and some smartphone cameras turn on some sort of filter or smoothing effect by default. As part of its Digital Wellbeing initiative, Google has create a design framework that’s meant to provide more control and transparency around selfie filters. This is meant to help respect “personal choices around face retouching on smartphones,” the company said.

Google found from multiple studies and interviews with child and mental health experts that when someone is unaware a camera or photo app has applied a filter, the images can negatively impact mental wellbeing. “These default filters can quietly set a beauty standard that some people compare themselves against,” product manager Vinit Modi wrote in a blog post.

Phones like Samsung’s Galaxy flagships and even Google’s own Pixels have offered selfie retouching in their camera apps, but it can sometimes take multiple steps to find them to turn them off or on. With its new approach, Google wants to make it clearer if a photo you’re taking has an effect enabled.

This feature will start rolling out in the Pixel 4a. Face retouching is turned off by default, and an upcoming update will use more neutral language and symbols for these tools as opposed to words with value attached to them like “beautifying” or “perfecting.” One of these changes, for example, is going with the label “subtle” instead of “natural,” which might imply that a lightly edited picture is “natural.”

Also, if you decide to use a retouching tool, “you’ll see more information about how each setting is applied and what changes it makes to your image,” Modi said.

This set of guidelines isn’t something Google wants to use only with its products — it’s looking to convince other companies as well. “Meaningful change takes collective effort, across a broad ecosystem of apps and devices,” Modi wrote, adding that Google’s partners have shared feedback from their own customers that echo what its research has found. “We’ve shared our insights and design framework with them as they continue to find ways to update their product experiences as well,” Modi said.

Modi pointed to Snapchat as “an app that shares our beliefs” adding that the latter’s default camera experience is unfiltered and that it offers an option to opt-in to lenses, which overlay effects on your face. Google also noted that Snapchat’s Lens Studio tool to create the filters uses value-neutral labels and that the latter “is committed to continuing to make improvements in this area.”

While the tools we use to take and edit pictures may get more neutral labelling and more transparency soon, another piece of the puzzle is where these images are shared. People have called for photos that have been edited to be labeled as such so impressionable users don’t think the doctored images are representative of reality. We’ve yet to see platforms like Instagram comment on the possibility of such a feature. For now, Google’s effort to encourage transparency in selfies is a thoughtful first step.