To Be Young Again: EPIK AI 90's Yearbook & Escapism
Youth and adolescence can be a traumatic experience. Unless you're blessed with exceptional genetics, chances are you might have felt less than your best during your teenage years. My mom often refers to this stage as the "ugly phase”. You’re lanky, a face plagued with zits, and emotional rollarcoasters become an every day routine.
Not only is it perfectly acceptable to idolize celebrities but you are being targeted by major companies shilling you packaged perfection.
Understandably - many people lament about “going back in time” because it’s the only time they felt like they were free or because they’d like a do over of some sort. While I usually scoff at that sentiment — let’s be honest, being an adult is pretty awesome — even I wasn’t strong enough to resist the EPIK AI Photo Editor App.
If you follow K-pop idols, beauty influencers or have a bunch of weeaboo friends you’d notice that everyone is uploading adorkably perfect 90s Highschool “Yearbook” photos. You can re-imagine your youth as a cheerleader, a musician or a fashionista. All while touching up your face to machine made perfection.
When I opened EPIK, I was greeted by the app's front page, which featured a section titled "Yearbook photos." What I initially thought would be a straightforward and enjoyable process turned out to be an ordeal that consumed over an hour of my time.
First, they require you to upload 8-12 well-lit photos of yourself. I wanted a flattering yet realistic result so I uploaded a range from my less attractive moments to my more stunning ones, along with some everyday shots.
After leading me past the point of sunk-cost fallacy, they revealed that it would cost $2 to view my photos. However, if I wanted to skip the excruciating 20-hour wait list (which seemed interminable!), I could opt to pay a hefty $5 to instantly access my sixty AI-generated "yearbook photos."
The uploading process is a clever way to get user buy-in. Next, I’m not sure if the “wait list” was a marketing gimmick. I had to guess it’s probably a tech issue. Rendering 60 unique AI images must take quite some time. Yet the appearance of exclusivity made the app so much more enticing.
Within an hour, a notification from EPIK arrived, and I was about to rewrite my own history.
I received sixty photos ranging from uncanny valley to AI weirdness. Some looked horrifically realistic - the photo in the green shirt looks a lot like a picture I took in 8th grade, but far cuter. The bottom left with the grandma hair cut is pretty much identical to how I looked in 2nd grade when I thought huge rounded glasses were the best thing ever.
It’s like a Hollywood reimagining of my youth. There are no bullies, no status games and no insecurities in this AI 90s teen dream fantasy. Just vibes, and lots of them.
EPIK’s Yearbook feature uses 90s to early 2000s Y2K aesthetics because it’s trendy and to evoke emotions. A teenager might find it fun to see themselves in a retro styled yearbook, but it doesn’t provide much for them emotionally. For Millenials? They get to see themselves as both young and in the framing of the time of when they were actually teenagers.
Like all fun things - this is where I must find an issue with it. While I was fine with throwing $5 away I cannot help but shake my feelings of uneasiness.
Just a few months prior - the AI app of the month was Reface. This product allows the user to swap their own face into the scenes of favorite films.
This is psychologically powerful - in a time where many of us feel pretty weak. instead of being stressed over the insane price of living or geopolitics, you can pay a bit of cash to fantasize as a *super hero*. The emotional manipulation could not be more obvious.
I recognize that these are pretty fun. A little novel toy. A modern amusement. And I am impressed what modern technology is capable of. However it’s scary. Do we feel so hopeless that the only way we can get the validation of success, beauty and social popularity - is by generating it? And playing make believe?
As we venture further into this brave new world all I can ask for is that we don’t lose ourselves to amusement.
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