In the past week, Instagram and TikTok have been filled with a sense of 1990s retro nostalgia: images of celebrities dressed as cheerleaders, quarterbacks, and nerds against a monochromatic high school yearbook background have taken over the most popular social media platforms among Millennials and Generation Z.
Drawing inspiration from cinematic references and aesthetic coordinates that Generation MTV users will immediately recognize – from Beverly Hills 90210 to Popular – the trend quickly went viral, involving both celebrities and influencers as well as regular users.
An Epik Return to the Past
The images are the product of the South Korean app Epik, a photo software that, together with artificial intelligence, transforms the 12 selfies uploaded into a series of images where one's facial features are adapted to a diverse range of American high school characters and stereotypes: from the school queen to the athlete, from the rapper to the chess club representative, there's something for everyone, precisely around sixty options.
However, Epik is not a free app. In fact, to access the Yearbook service, there are two payment options: one for $5.99 and the other for $9.99, depending on how quickly you want to obtain the images. The cheaper option may take about 24 hours, while the second option takes a maximum of 2 hours.
Only in the past few weeks, Epik has risen to the top of the download charts on the Apple Store and Google Play, and it is estimated to generate approximately $250,000 per day through the purchase of the Yearbook mode. Among the prominent online figures who have participated in the trend so far are actress Keke Palmer, television personality Guy Fieri, Twitch streamer Pokimane, and SK Group President Chey Tae-won.
When the Future Plays with Nostalgia
Digital returns to the past are not a new trend but are part of a broader and widespread trend that has also involved cinema, music, technology, and AI. It should not surprise us that the chosen decades are the 1980s and 1990s: in a constantly evolving world that seems never to slow down, younger generations look back with nostalgia at a perceived simpler past. It is in this context that we can understand the virality of a trend like Epik's.
However, even though these devices take us back to the past, it is a representation that is not authentic but rather idealized and digitized, no matter how realistic their technologies may be. So much so that, in response to the trend, numerous users on Instagram and TikTok have uploaded their actual high school yearbook photos, showing that they were not as glamorous as in the app.
AI: Personal Data Information Wanted
In general, the NPC's warning goes beyond the individual case of Epik: with this caution to the public, the Commission suggests greater caution in both participating in viral online trends through downloadable apps and staying vigilant about the use of AIs that reproduce our faces and bodily features with such technological sophistication that it becomes unsettling.
The case of the 1990s yearbook photos created by Epik's AI confirms itself as the latest in a long series of examples with which we will increasingly interact in the future, reminding us of both the fascination and the risks that these new technologies bring with them.
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