Be yourself. That’s important, right? It better be; I say it to my kids all the time. But what does "being yourself" mean in the digital age?
Being yourself isn’t a binary proposition. We aren’t either "authentic" or "fake". There are a million shades in between. At the one end of the scale there is Belle Gibson, at the other there is the Buddha; but most of us fall somewhere in the middle.
Last week, influencer Marissa Fuchs caused a giant online storm by posting her surprise engagement/wedding online. It was nothing particularly novel – everyone posts their proposals these days – until Fuchs was caught out.
It was revealed the engagement wasn’t a surprise at all. She had sold the entire experience to advertisers before it made it to Instagram.
The online world reacted with horror, because Fuchs had committed the ultimate sin against social media. She was not authentic. She was not transparent. Her Instagram feed was fraud!
Well, I didn’t react with horror. Partly because I don’t care about her proposal, but partly because I didn’t get the memo about authenticity. Where is it written that we need to be authentic online? Where is it decreed that transparency is key?
In recent years there has been a huge backlash against social media users who are inauthentic. The celebrity caught using Face Tune on her photos? Wrong! The influencer caught peddling a product without the hashtag #sponsored? Deceitful! The reality star posting loved-up messages about her partner when you suspect they’re having issues? Fake!
Now, influencers like Belle Gibson, who peddled medical lies and fraud, pose a real and present danger to their followers.
But I fail to understand the danger of pedestrian influencers like Marissa Fuchs, whose only sin was to fake an engagement surprise.
Because we don’t just curate our digital footprint; we also curate our real lives.
We all present a version of ourselves to the world. We wear makeup to enhance our appearance. We monitor what we say in public. We keep certain personal details private – our salaries, our sexual lives, our struggles. We pretend to be surprised when we’re really not. None of us are running around unfiltered and unmodified, and if we are, we’re not especially healthy.
Authenticity is something I strive for in my personal life, because I want to live in accordance with my values and beliefs. But, do I expect social media influencers to be authentic or transparent? God no. Influencers are entertainers, or – if you’re feeling generous – performance artists. They offer a product (their social media feeds) for public consumption. We should be savvy enough to realise their products are constructions.
After all, we watch reality TV knowing it is largely a fiction. We browse fashion magazines knowing that the images are retouched. We are complicit in those narratives because we want to be entertained, and we are equally complicit as consumers of social media.
Of course, it’s not easy constructing these online personas. We’ve seen enough influencers collapsing under the strain of creating their perfect online realities. It’s rough out here in the online world. You need a lot of content, and a very thick skin.
Still, that doesn’t mean that authenticity is the necessary remedy.
After all, you don’t expect ballerinas to deconstruct their dances; you’re quite aware that they practice for hours, and that they don’t really walk around en pointe. You don’t expect filmmakers to reveal all their tricks; you anticipate being manipulated by their art, which is why you bought your ticket.
So, what is wrong with concealing the art of the Instagram pic? What is wrong with creating a bit of magic?
If someone wants to put their fake Instagram proposal online, and it brings somebody else a little joy, I say let them go ahead and enjoy the illusion. If you don’t like the fake proposal, look away and unfollow, but don’t condemn the influencer for not being transparent.
This is the digital world, my friends, and you are complicit in its construction. Authenticity is but a hashtag on a post about a meme.
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