The "Intelli-beauty" effect in PhotoWonder.

'Auto-Beautification' Selfie Apps, Popular in Asia, Are Moving into the West

What does it mean to look like yourself on the internet anymore?

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May 2 2016, 11:00am

The "Intelli-beauty" effect in PhotoWonder.

The days of #nofilter are numbered.

It's not that it will lose any descriptive truth, as a disclaimer; just that filtering barely registers among the extravagant suite of things you can now do to selfies—like retouch your blemishes, reshape your nose, shrink your thighs, and "apply" makeup.

These are standard features in the clutch of photo editing apps, like BeautyPlus, FaceTune, PhotoWonder, and ModiFace, that take, as their primary subject, the human face.

These apps, which are typically free, are wildly popular in Asia, whose selfie consumers may be the most advanced in the world. Asian companies pioneered mobile retouching as early as 2012 to meet huge demand for the service, as opposed to in Europe and America, where the practice may be about to breach the mainstream.

Earlier this month, Facebook chose BeautyPlus as one of six partner apps through with you can directly share Facebook "profile videos." Of these apps, which include Vine and Boomerang, BeautyPlus is the only one with retouching features.

A Facebook spokesperson said the company chooses apps based on users' current editing patterns, and that selfie-retouching was considered a trend on par with things like looping videos and filter effects.

PhotoWonder and BeautyPlus, which together have over 200 million users, both started in China: the former is backed by Chinese search giant Baidu, and the latter is owned by a startup called Meitu, which was recently valued at $3 billion. Although PhotoWonder claims to have users in 218 countries (perhaps double-counting some of the usual 196), it betrays some particularly East Asian aesthetic concerns, like enlarging your eyes and lightening your skin.

"In countries like China, Japan and Korea—where these types of apps are more mature and more widely used—consumers tend to tune up the auto-beautification more."

Within PhotoWonder, a one-step button dubbed "Intelli-beauty" transforms a photo on just two vectors: one to "thinify" your face and another to "enlarge eyes." This, we can infer, is the gist of a desirable face: limpid, oversized eyeballs and a delicately tapered chin. An Intelli-beautified selfie emerges rather like a tarsier, or a Bratz doll.

The phenomena of selfies and social media operate on a much larger scale in Asia than they do in Europe and North America combined, said Lev Manovich, a new media theorist. "But what is most crucial is that facial beauty is even more important in Asia than in the West. And it is carefully crafted through use of makeup, skin lightening products, and often also plastic surgery."

"In other words," he said, "the beauty ideal is not 'casual' or 'natural,' but fully engineered."

That doesn't mean Western users aren't catching on to the selfie-editing trend.

FaceTune is the second most popular paid app on the iTunes store in the US, and it has at least one Kardashian seal of approval. FaceTune, which is $3.99, has fewer showy features than its Asian counterparts—you can't change your makeup, for instance—but it's a slick compression of magazine-grade retouching.

The filter in action. GIF: Krithika Varagur

Features like smoothing skin and whitening teeth are popular across the board, said Eric Villines, vice president of marketing for Meitu, which makes BeautyPlus. However, the company sees major differences in how Asian and Western users use the app.

"In Western countries, users tend to like things more natural," he said. "In countries like China, Japan and Korea—where these types of apps are more mature and more widely used—consumers tend to tune up the auto-beautification more."

Selfie culture is inherently antisocial. You can't reasonably retouch group shots because it requires a level of interest most people can only muster for their own mug. In particular, the apps that let you digitally overlay makeup seem like an extension of the Netflix-Seamless on-demand continuum: The day may be near when leaving your house seems superfluous, for you could beam out a flawlessly done up photo of yourself from the couch.