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I'm looking through you, where did you go?

Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel AsiaAs hotels airbrush out the traffic and smog, once normal people morph into wide-eyed Betty Boops and bewildering anime characters.

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by Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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Face tuning apps are turning our Facebook profiles into cartoons with unbelievable figures

Is she real or are we all hallucinating?

HAVE you ever had that vague feeling that you know people you meet but cannot place them? It happens to me all the time. Especially when I travel. It's not forgetfulness or a case of too many friends. It's something called Facebook.

I live in a wonderful low-density area that is conspicuous for its lack of puffery, preening and posing. It's called Reality. Not many people have heard of it, it seems. Not on Facebook, certainly, where people are morphing into unrecognizable emojis and wide-eyed cartoons that threaten to catapult oversize eyeballs into your soup.

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A rash of instant-beauty apps promise to slim waists down to spaghetti strands and elongate fingers into chopsticks at the swipe of a cell phone slider. They will turn broad happy friendly hard-working faces into taut triangles with pouting mouths and the sort of space-saucer eyes that belong in comic books.

{On Facebook people are morphing into unrecognizable emojis and wide-eyed cartoons that threaten to catapult oversize eyeballs into your soup

"I think 15 percent is max," I joked to a friend who's committed to the art of face-tuning. "Nooo… at least 45 percent," she squealed, embarrassed. Clearly I have no appreciation of what a 30 percent reduction means to looks and love life.

I reached out on Facebook to a popular hotelier in China (I shall call her Alexa) and found her to be a fount of information. She posted busily each day. The photography was excellent. She seemed a chatty and resourceful person and on my next trip we arranged to meet, in the lobby. I arrived and scanned the crowded lobby. After a while I spoke to the receptionist and she informed me my host was already there.

"Hi Vijay," someone said, tapping my shoulder. "Hello," I said, turning around, "I'm looking for Alexa." "I'M Alexa," she responded with a laugh. That I remained standing was entirely due to the fact that I was leaning on the sort of Carrara marble pillar luxury hotels love to strew around the lobby for precisely this situation. "Yes, of course."

After a few such encounters around Asia, I had a strange feeling that I was somehow trapped in an alternate universe, a parallel dimension peopled by avatars that I thought I vaguely knew while each professed to be my best friend. Some indeed were.

While online travel photos have always been dodgy, Photoshopped beyond recognition with slums airbrushed out and beaches dropped in, faces have moved in the same direction. It was inevitable. Business travel has entered the Twilight Zone though fortunately Linked-in profile shots are a tad more honest. And while your iPhone (like your mum) can recognize your face instantly, both would probably fail to decipher your drop-dead profile pose.

Facebook continues to be a platform for deception on an industrial scale. This may not have been in the original FB script but the landscape is ripe for mulcting those with tenuous confidence, especially when it comes to perceived blemishes. App developers have flourished in the FB ecosystem and instant feel-good software has multiplied exponentially.

The problems arise when business contacts – or prospective grooms – arrive at the royal ball to find no candidate fits into that alluring slipper. We have progressed from passport mugshots that made us look and feel like criminals – albeit honest ones – to profile pics that would make Superman or Marilyn Monroe turn green with envy.

Why? I have posed this question to several people but never found any satisfactory answer. When alternative reality lifestyle and travel site Second Life launched with its godly avatars over a decade ago, I wandered in to gawp at the 3D landscape, take in a movie, and occasionally sweep the streets to earn Linden dollars (which are convertible into real cash). Here people were giants. Given a choice to set height and weight parameters the good citizens of SL were on average seven feet plus. I discovered this after creating my rather honest and drab lookalike that was constantly talking to heaving busts and rippling chests. "Make yourself taller pal," I was instructed. I did.

That particular everyone-is-a-diva world has invaded fast vanishing real life. Aspiring Miss Koreas strut the stage, each an exact clone of the next, with surgically enhanced features, and aliens with huge eyes on petite faces assail us on our phones. One day real aliens having picked up our chatter in space will arrive to get the shock of their lives as they scour the planet armed with our profile pics. "Ah-lex-aaa? Errrp??!!" Forget missile shields. FB will send them looking for the Pokemon Convention.

It was a pleasure then to run into some old school chums, balding, greying, chubby and cheerful, some barely recognizable after 45 years but not due to legerdemain on some clever app. They looked exactly like their profile pictures. No one was a seven-foot Titan. We spoke eye to eye. What a blast to dig into some real mutton biryani and kebab and have a real conversation with real people. As The Beatles presciently sang, "I'm looking through you, where did you go?"

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