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Why we love Instagram’s “What Pokémon are you?” filter even though it’s meaningless

Instagram’s “What Pokémon are you?” filter speaks to one of humanity’s deepest desires (aside from being a Charizard).

The “What Pokémon Are You?” filter placed on a still of Chris Evans from Knives Out.
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

People will travel to the ends of the Earth, leave long-term relationships, look to the heavens, climb mountains, go spelunking, submit DNA to private companies, and obsessively take online quizzes, all in an attempt to solve one of life’s greatest mysteries: finding out who they really are.

And in the very young year of 2020, people are now turning to a new method of self-discovery. And that highly considered process involves the combined forces of Pokémon and Instagram filters.

Over the past two weeks, interactive filters asking questions like “What Pokémon Are You?”, along with Harry Potter, Sailor Moon, and various Disney equivalents, have inundated Instagram story feeds. The conceit is simple and low-effort:

Users pose for a recorded video while a slot machine-like graphic flashing different characters — say, types of Pokémon — spins over their head. Eventually, and without any user input, it randomly stops at one. With the Pokémon filter, you’re left either highly satisfied that the algorithm guessed that you’re one of your favorite Pokémon, or bummed that a filter could be so wrong and stick you with the dopey, coconut tree-esque Exeggutor.

[Editor’s note: I continue to be offended that I, an obvious Charmander, was deemed a Squirtle instead. — Allegra Frank]

Allegra is NOT a Squirtle
Editor Allegra Frank gets a Pokémon she disagrees with.
Allegra Frank/Instagram

No matter the outcome, the results are then shared on Instagram along with the user’s live reaction — happy, sad, angry, satisfied — for their friends. The recorded video nature of it means that the reaction is as important a part of the story as the result itself; sure, you could game it by retaking the quiz multiple times. But it only works if you launch the filter as a video; your friends will always depend on finding out your reaction to the character you’ve been deemed.

The augmented reality filter, created by user @hughesp1, along with counterparts like a Disney character version (by @arnopartissimo) and a Harry Potter riff (by @syilers), have gone viral thanks solely to friends sharing their short Instagram story results, like a platform-exclusive word-of-mouth. While one could obtain the filter by visiting those developers’ pages in the filters section or their individual pages, the easiest way to try the filter yourself is clicking through a link on the upper left-hand corner of a friend’s story, which states which filter their story is using.

But there’s also something here about this specific genre of filters, like those random online personality quizzes, that exemplifies to a certain, widely studied psychology behind our human desire to define and assert our identities.

Tribalism, I choose you!

The idea of masses of people wanting to find their true selves through a randomizer on Instagram and a fictional pocket monster might seem a little silly. But it’s not an original or even outrageous concept. In this permutation, you may be deemed a too-cute-to-be-trusted Vulpix or a sleepy Snorlax. But people have long sought out how to most easily explain themselves through online quizzes, in casual conversation, or even in their own heads. We use characters as personal shorthand all the time, whether you consider yourself Miranda on Sex and the City, a Ravenclaw in Harry Potter, a “true” Scorpio, a Chidi from The Good Place, Bon Appetit YouTube personality Claire, a Posh Spice, or even a Yankee fan.

Allegra IS Sailor Saturn
Allegra is much happier to be Sailor Saturn.
Allegra Frank/Instagram

This instinct to identify yourself and belong feels so good because it feels so concrete. These characters, figures, teams, astrology signs, and whatnot have distinct traits about them, and it’s easy to pick those out and match your own traits with those.

Most of the determining factors in your life are beyond your control, like where you were born, or your nationalities, or even oftentimes your own names. But cultivating or defining an identity based on the things you like or dislike is a practice you pursue on your own, as a way to articulate the person you believe yourself to be. And when our personality types match with a particular group that we already relate to and understand, it feels incredibly validating.

This concept — finding and attaching yourself to different groups — is called tribalism.

“People identify with all kinds of groups,” Jay Van Bavel, a professor of psychology and neural science at New York University, told Vox’s Constance Grady in 2017. “That includes everything from your favorite sports team or your country, to seemingly arbitrary groups, like going to the gym and forming a pickup basketball team for the day, or identifying with Apple or Microsoft. Tribalism is deeply burned into the ways our brains and minds operate, and it manifests in all different kinds of ways.”

The tribalism in the “Which character are you?” Instagram filters exists on a few different levels.

Primarily, by being assigned a character under the premise that it represents who you, yourself, are, you’ve essentially been given a set of traits and an identity to compare yourself against. Each Pokémon in the video games has elemental powers (e.g. fire, ice, flying, grass) and a set of personality traits. Some of these powers and traits are more preferable to certain fans than others — hence people getting annoyed with being tagged with certain Pokémon (your writer was deemed the utterly basic Pikachu, and he couldn’t fathom it) and overjoyed when they get others (your writer was much happier when the filter decided he was a sassy Vulpix).

The other level of the character quiz filters works in that posting these videos lets other Disney or Harry Potter or Pokémon fans connect with other fans. Posting a Rattata doesn’t really matter to people who aren’t familiar with the game, and who don’t know that the character is the redundant normie of the franchise. But to Pokémon fans, seeing someone get a Rattata instantly speaks to a specific set of traits that are only obvious to anyone familiar with the canon. Same goes for a quiz that sorts Harry Potter fans into a Hogwarts house; only a Harry Potter-loving, self-identified Slytherin understands the pain of being sorted into Hufflepuff.

Sharing the character quiz filters in Instagram stories is like speaking another language to others who are fluent in it — the same way getting a Professor Minerva McGonagall or Maleficent in the Harry Potter filter and the Disney character filter means the most to those fans. Even if we get characters we might not believe are representative of who we are, it still strengthens that bond of belonging because identifying that character is part of being in that tribe.

Instagram adds to this experience by forcing users to record their live reactions. The social media platform simultaneously allows people to enjoy each other’s real-time, spontaneous responses, while also letting them quickly define themselves, or reject an identity projected upon them.

Of course, the Pokémon filter — like the well-known Meyers-Briggs personality test and other online quizzes — is pretty meaningless in determining deep down who you really are. The Pokémon filter results in a different Pokémon each time you play with it, after all. And the newest permutation of the filter is now more like a fortune-telling randomizer that tells people what kind of year they’ll have in 2020, perhaps signaling the death knell for these as personality quiz filters and instead transforming them into loosely predictive, Magic 8 Ball-esque ones.

But doesn’t mean there isn’t inherent joy or some kind of value in letting the world know you’re a Vulpix. Nor will these filters’ eventual fade into the ether ever deter people from indulging that deep, human desire to find out and express who they really are.

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