When I first saw a TikTok about Glance Back, a Chrome extension that functions as a kind of photo diary, I knew I'd download it. Once a day at a random time, Glance Back takes a photo of your face as you open a new tab. While you’d think that, in this era of video calls, I’d be sick of looking at myself, I was intrigued. I spend so much time sitting at my computer each day, but I have no idea what I look like when I’m working.
I downloaded it on January 7, and sometime that afternoon, I opened a new tab and was met by a front-facing camera image of my own face. After a disarming millisecond, the photo snapped and I was asked to input a caption about what I’d been doing (which, at the time, was trying to summarize an article for a TikTok). I remember feeling excited, envisioning a series of authentically informal photographs that, taken together, would tell a story about my life.
But things quickly fell apart.
In every single photo Glance Back took, I was in the same room, wearing a near-identical sweatshirt, with a very similar expression on my face: intense concentration, with a tinge of agitation at my work being interrupted by the extension switching on. Each picture rankled me more than the previous day’s. Is that what I looked like? Why was I always scowling? Did I hate my job? Is that what my coworkers used to stare at every day in real life — a pinched, ferocious glower?
Then, there was the question of my eyebrows. The Glance Back extension doesn’t mirror the photos it takes, so the effect is something like seeing yourself through TikTok’s Inverted filter, which I — and thousands of others on the app — hate with a passion. I’ve always known my eyebrows were uneven, but after Glance Back began calling me out, I panic-bought three new brow products.
By this point in the pandemic, we know staring at ourselves for too long can be damaging to the psyche. “Anytime a person looks at themself too closely, or for too long, they can start to notice things they didn’t see before, and things can start to look distorted,” Jennifer L. Greenberg, PsyD, the director of Translational Research at the Center for OCD and Related Disorders, tells Refinery29. “The more you focus on things you don’t like in the mirror/camera, the worse you feel.”
It doesn’t help that front-facing cameras can distort reflections and that we are often comparing ourselves to filtered images.
Dr. Greenberg suggested healthy coping mechanisms, like trying to look at your whole self, rather than zooming in on specific features, as well as recognizing unrealistic beauty ideals we are bombarded with, and increasing your self-compassion. I coped with my angst by sending the worst Glance Back photos to my coworkers, who responded with skull emojis and all-caps laughter.
When I reached out to Glance Back’s creator, Maya Man, to ask about why she created the extension, I couldn’t help but tell her about my rocky start. She laughed sympathetically. Man describes the experience of using it as similar to lucid dreaming, when you suddenly become aware that you’re in a dream: “Whenever I’m browsing, I’m very much in a trance. Then for a second it confronts me with myself, and it’s like, Oh yeah, that’s what I look like sitting here!”
Man is also an artist, programmer, and dancer, and came up with the idea after graduating college and getting her first full-time job. For the first time, she was spending eight hours a day at her computer. “You know that feeling when someone’s staring at you for a long time and you’re not staring back?” she asks. “I thought, ‘Wow, that’s how my computer feels’.” The extension was a playful way of personifying her computer: Now, it could make eye contact with her.
This resonated with me. I’ve been working from home for two years. I don’t dislike it, but I’m often disquieted by the claustrophobic relationship I’ve developed with my computer. Working remotely means I rely on my laptop for social tasks — meetings, brainstorms, one-on-ones, casual chit-chat — in addition to solo tasks. There are times when I’m interacting with it so intensely that I feel as though I’m diving into the screen like I would a pool; my entire world and everything I need exists within its 13 inches. When I walk past the laptop after closing it for the night, I often feel like it’s looking at me.
Man also revealed she’s always been interested in "self-documentation," and created Glance Back as a kind of alternative to a journaling practice, which she never managed to stick to. “I’m reliably in my browser surfing the internet every day. So it became this way to document small moments that I’d otherwise never step away and document,” she says. She made Glance Back available to the public (for free; she’s never received money from it) in 2019.
What I hated about Glance Back at first was that it was impossible to curate your image; well, that’s by design, she adds. “I see [the extension] as kind of an antidote to usual ways I — and we all — are performing our personas online. It’s all, in some ways, curated,” Man says. “It’s great to have a method of documentation that feels really in contrast with the type of curated contrived images you can’t help but create when you’re taking a photo of yourself, because there’s kind of this release of control that happens with it.”
I thought I wanted the candids Glance Back promised. But I’m used to posing, even for selfies that I never intend to share with anyone else. Not being able to present my best side or retake a “bad” photo made me feel surprisingly vulnerable. Eventually, though, it began to feel refreshing.
In fact, I was on the verge of deleting the extension altogether when I unexpectedly fell in love with it. At first, I thought I’d just taken a series of “good” photos: my bangs covering my eyebrows, my face still tense but not fully pinched into a grimace. But what changed my mind wasn’t any one or two individual photos; it was all of them. At some point over the course of a month, the accumulation of silly, mundane, monotonous snapshots began to feel like an actual representation of me, and an endearing one — a private glimpse at my quiet moments that would otherwise go unnoticed. Perhaps I had learned, as Dr. Greenberg had suggested, to zoom out.
The resulting digital album of candid photos isn’t totally unlike Spotify Wrapped, in that it provides, as writer Olivia Harrison previously wrote for Refinery29, “an honest picture of who I really am.” Looking through my photos, there’s no denying which sweatshirt I favor, what I look like when I’m concentrating, where I prefer to work — or even, hell, the ways in which my face is uneven.
You can see, too, how textured life really is, even during the most monotonous weeks and years. My library of photos would likely be immensely boring to anyone else. It’s made up almost entirely of pictures of me at my desk, with only the cleanliness of my hair changing in each shot. But each picture reminds me of the whole life I was living on that particular day — the worries I was caught up in, the events I was looking forward to, the work I was consumed by.
Of course, the only real value of being reminded about these sorts of mundane little moments is that it demonstrates how quickly I forgot about almost all of them. Everything in life is temporary — even, probably, my most persistent concerns about my eyebrows.