An interesting piece by Sophie Werthan in Slate reports that Facebook is developing a tool to change pictures so that closed eyes appear to be open.
In technical terms, the tool employs an Artificial Intelligence technique that learns to insert realistic, open eyes where closed ones are detected in photos. The point is to help overcome disappointment when users blink in what would otherwise be a nice picture of them.
As the article notes, tools that touch up digital photos are not new. For example, methods for detection and removal of red-eye in photos were being implemented in the early 2000s. Tools for this purpose, blemish removal, etc., are now commonplace in photo editing software.
Implementation may seem creepy at first as it reveals to users that Facebook is keeping close track of their facial features. Add to this that Facebook is also planning to keep track of users' eye and mouse movements. Perhaps features like the blink-removal tool are intended, in part, to make this tracking seem more benign to users than it might seem otherwise.
Besides privacy issues, the editing tool also adds to concerns about the authenticity of online pictures. In this case, authenticity refers to the genuineness of pictures, that is, the extent to which they faithfully represent what was in front of the camera when a photo was taken. Photos that employ fakery are inauthentic in this sense.
Photographic fakery has always been an issue. Early picture postcards of the 20th century were often edited for aesthetic purposes, to remove unsightly clutter such as overhead wires from in front of pretty buildings. Soviet censors were notorious for airbrushing people out of old photos when they fell from political favor. In 2008, the Iranian government used Photoshop to increase the number of rocket launchers shown in military photographs.
So, how should the arrival of blink-removal be regarded, in terms of authenticity? Perhaps it provides nothing more than a casual, aesthetic touch-up, like red-eye removal. Or, perhaps it is meant to make users feel still more self-conscious about their appearance, prompting them to spend yet more time on Facebook managing their self-presentation.
By itself, the blink-removal feature seems much like other aesthetic touch-ups that have been accepted in the past, rather than a sort of self-censorship along the lines of a personal Ministry of Truth. Still, as the number of aesthetic "problems" that Facebook offers to fix increases, I cannot help the impression that they won't be content until users are woefully neurotic about how they appear on the service.