In the beginning (of the Internet) was the word. Or the code, technically. A bunch of text. Whatever you called it, it was all there was.
The Web glowed green or orange through our matte black monitor screens in bright strings of letters, digits, and random characters, a hybrid of languages — some legible to you, some legible to it. A prompt prompted your participation, and when you sent your own lines of text into it, it felt like a form of magic to receive lines in return. E-mails, chats, and bulletin boards seemed sprung from a mix of uncanny sorcery and an alchemy of crude technologies — telegraph, typewriter, and telephone. You could sense the human on the other end of whatever exchange you were involved in, but harder to sense was the humanity.
That is, it was faceless.
So we made do by making faces — out of staring colons and winking semis, nosey carats and hyphens, aghast Os and smirking parenthesis. The quickly widening typographical innovation of emoticons weren’t just a way to signal that we were just kidding, or maybe flirting, or OMGing; they were a way to signal what this staggering shift in human communication was missing: a view of each other, and more specifically, the effortlessly legible language of the face.
It wasn’t long before images entered the Web lexicon — slowly rendered over dial-up connections in Netscape browsers as heavily dithered GIFs or shaggy JPEGs — but the time it took to download them undercut their impact. I remember initiating a download, going to bed, and waking to find an image sitting there, reassembled from its single file line of bits. The advent of images offered the intimacy of face-to-face encounters, with none of the immediacy. And these still images of faces (they weren’t quite “profile pictures” just yet) were at once a way to verify one’s presence in this strange new void, and validate one’s suspicions that none of it was real.
As homepages and “web rings” started filling out the flatness of the early Web, and as the first webcams started opening their eyes on us, it started to become easier to reconcile the opacity of the medium with the authenticity of the message. The more of us showed up, the more real it seemed.
By 1999 the Web was starting to become its own social scene for those of us who never imagined ourselves “computer people." We signed up on Makeoutclub (named after an Unrest song) and Friendster, scanned our Polaroids at computer labs or splurged for a digital camera. Then we started LiveJournal accounts and MySpace pages, AIM accounts and Yahoo! chats. Before long we were uploading to Flickr albums, and Skyping enough that it became a verb. And then came Facebook.
The decade-long journey between my first steps on the Web and my first login to Facebook was itself a slow-mo trustfall of sorts. And it took another full decade before life online attained anything like verisimilitude to the one I led offline. But once it did, the currency of the face had skyrocketed in value — to users and the platforms where they assembled. One’s profile pics — soon enough rebranded as “selfies” — became the foundational unit of social media.
Our avatars became our ambassadors for everything from Yelp! reviews to our Twitter timelines. They became playthings for high-tech filters on MSQRD and Instagram. We were swiping them on Tinder and swapping them on Snapchat. Slowly but surely our faces became clusters of vectors, sets of data to play with. They became something other than ourselves — and oddly enough, that’s when they became the most valuable.
Now, what to make of the faces we see online? A mobile mob of trillions of faces have already taught armies of bots to create comparable mobs of virtual visages (visit ThisPersonDoesNotExist.com for an endless gallery of AI-generated examples). Our faces can be peeled off and deepfaked onto other bodies (see: apps like Morphin and Doublicat, which Hannibal-Lecterize our faces onto silly GIFs and movie clips).
And just as the faces we see online lose their aura of identity, our own faces have become more like fingerprints — individual yet impersonal. They unlock our phones and open apps, get us onto planes and into our houses; and if certain databases are searching for you, your face can get you taken into custody.
Our faces, billions of which have been already scraped and cataloged into colossal databases (see the Times and Buzzfeed reports on fast-rising facial-recognition firms like Clearview) are one by one undoing the very notion of public privacy. The contours and asymmetries of our faces, the measurements and biometrics they silently transmit, are expressing more than any Mona Lisa smile or come-hither look ever could. Our faces are speaking for us and we no longer know their language.
So what is the future of our faces? Dystopian visions advanced by artists and activists imagine crude fixes like prosthetics and paint as our best defenses against a global surveillance system that knows with one digital glance who we are, where we are, what we’re doing, and even how we’re doing. But for anyone who has ever shared a selfie, there may be no path back to incognito, no way to look away from what’s happening, no way to stay a stranger.