This post was written by Gaurika Chaturvedi, Research Master’s student, New Media & Digital Culture, University of Amsterdam
What is authentic? This is a question that creators, audiences, advertisers, and researchers all ask themselves. Although that last group is preoccupied with how others perceive authenticity, they also have their own ideas. Due to a bit of narcissism cloaked as reflexivity, I want to look at how researchers answer this question for themselves. I am building on the plenary conversation with Arturo Arriagada, Nancy Baym, and Mark Deuze in the 2022 Global Digital Cultures conference. Each speaker presented how they approach authenticity in doing creator research. However, they seemed to be missing an angle that advertisers have tied down for quite some time: Authenticity is relational. How embarrassing! Although the dependencies of this idea were discussed, no one seemed to explicitly say this. So first, let’s discuss what was said, and then I will elaborate on what I mean by “authenticity is relational”.
Approved Identities are Authentic
“People want people to be who we think they are and if they are not then we think they’re inauthentic” quipped Baym in reference to her work at Microsoft Research. The project focused on the changing relation of employees to labour in North America during the COVID-19 Pandemic. They found that participating employees emphasized wanting to do meaningful and fulfilling work. To meet this expressed desire, employers have turned to those who apparently “do what they love” for a solution – content creators. Duffy argues that the creator economy has the prevailing narrative that the people engaging in it love providing the services they do to their audience. The insertion of “do what you love” in a corporate environment manifests as a push to be “authentic” in the workplace. The massive shift to working from home during the pandemic made apparent some of the interpersonal audience management people performed in the workplace. For minorities, being authentic might open them up for harassment. For instance, for queer people being true to themselves might mean coming out to a less than welcoming group of people. Working from home allowed those at the margins to not do the emotional labor of dealing with microaggressions, changing how they communicate interpersonally to be taken more seriously. As the earlier quote claims, there are some ways of being authentic that are tacitly approved of in a given social-cultural context. This may be informed by the norms of your team, department, organization, country, field, et cetera. Presenting the self differently in different contexts is an experience that most of us can relate to. I am not arguing that people in the majority don’t perform authentically, but that some forms of authenticity are permissible and more easily accessible than others. Furthermore, those that are permissible are informed by hegemonic ideas of what it means to be a “professional”. This workplace performance of authenticity manifests digitally in spaces like LinkedIn.
In trying to define my experience with LinkedIn, a friend and I compared it to YouTube. When a YouTuber you care about gets to the ad read in their video, you kind of tune out (unless it’s Jay Foreman). The ad read feels more like a performance than the rest of the video because there is an understanding that they have to do this. LinkedIn feels like watching ad read after ad read. There is an understanding that your connections have to post here because this is the space where potential employers vet you. This performance is the selling of the self as a commodity and is rewarded in the form of jobs. In fact, after this goes up, I am going to upload it on LinkedIn. So if you’re seeing this from there, I have a socially constructed gun against my head.
Networking has always been important to work, however, it has since stepped up from an interpersonal performance to also include a mass performance. Individuals are expected to perform the specialized labor previously associated with Public Relations departments. For instance, Baym discusses how musicians are increasingly asked to be accessible online. The argument by both labels and indie artists is that if people know your story they are more emotionally invested in your well-being and more likely to support you. Buying is reframed as support. However, there is a reason why PR is its own industry. Having an online presence is not simply a matter of being authentic online. It requires knowledge of the platform, knowing your audience, and a communication strategy to curate a digital presence that garners attention. Very little, if any, training is provided to that effect for artists or corporate employees who are increasingly being demanded by a work culture to publicly “be themselves”.
Mass media is Authentic?
Deuze starts from John Durham Peters’ approach that only that which is mediated is authentic. Deuze modifies this to say only that which is mass mediated is authentic communication because there is no consideration for who hears it. In contrast, the performativity of interpersonal communication as discussed above is why he disagrees with it being labeled as authentic. Interpersonal communication is a compromise. It is a dance to understand the position of the other and adjust the self accordingly. However, even in mass communication, there is a consideration for what the target audience is conducive to. Audiences are produced and maintained by performing the compromises that the relevant audience will interpret as authentic. Interpreting this seemingly one-sided performance as a lack of concern for audience opinion seems to miss the ways in which it still signals in-groupness. The temporal delay between production and reception does not mean that there is no consideration for viewers but that the compromises made are made with an imagined audience in mind rather than a definite one.
These compromises may be made on different levels and vary depending on the platform. Early work on social media found that the image management techniques users used in interpersonal interactions were difficult to digitise because several audiences experienced one in the same online space, a context collapse. Since then the polymedial nature of experience online has developed different platform-specific cultures of self-branding and subsequently communicational compromises. This may take the shape of the use of a certain language, positioning the self in a broader socioeconomic context, engaging in culturally specific practices, performing certain intimacies et cetera. For instance, research on Instagram fashion influencers found that creators would produce intimacy by posting an image about a fashion object but using the caption to communicate their mood through song lyrics or quotes. The Russian Internet Agency’s performance of American identity during the 2016 election further demonstrates how these practices can be operationalized for appearing authentic. They employed practices that were specific to conservative American digital culture to produce the impression of “one of us”. They would refer to American holidays, use meme formats common to American digital space to communicate conservative talking points, and discuss the mundanities of living in America. For instance, a tweet about a dog would implicitly refer to what it means to be a middle-class dog owner in America. The use of conservative talking points is the performance of a compromise on the basis of an imagined audience that they wanted to include and that excludes others. The performance was lent credence because politics was couched between expressions of personhood.
In Deuze’s written work, authenticity is an angle – a creative, unique take on a topic. This ties into the idea that one’s subjectivity shapes their perspective. Here, being true to oneself is tapping into that subjectivity to present a new lens to the world. However, creativity as authenticity doesn’t account for the co-prescription of an angle. A creator may have a unique brand but become restricted to it because that is what their audience is here for. They may feel pressured to keep delivering more of the same because of their economic reliance on content production. Using authenticity defined in absolute terms, their angle was authentic but slowly becomes inauthentic. Deuze, like Baym, acknowledges that although creative labor discourse is being adopted to urge people to do what they love and take the stage with their own views, there is little institutional support to actually do that. Turning people to creative labor in the face of a commercial and systemic shift to gig work and precarity seems a bit tone-deaf. Additionally, it overlooks the starting cost of entering the creator economy. One needs capital for equipment, attending networking events, and free time for learning new technologies, developing skills, and performing relational labor. This suppression of the economics of creative labor is also a practice that creative laborers themselves engage in. It allows them to position themselves as underdogs to older conceptions of celebrity while also avoiding being perceived as if their performance is “for the money” and thus inauthentic.
How not to be a sell-out
Arriagada argues that actors (co-)construct an imaginary to justify and reconcile the ostensibly opposing forces of commerce and authenticity. Theorizing from ethnographic work on Chilean social media influencers, he argues that influencers are in the business of mediating identities, lifestyles, and consumption. Influencers conceptualize their work as part of a specific set of economic relations, with a set of stakeholders. This informs their actions and their performance of authenticity. For instance, Chilean influencers reconcile the inequitable remuneration for their work targeting audiences deemed “economically less valuable” by the platform by separating themselves from celebrities. While celebrities are unavailable and preoccupied with fame and fortune, influencers are doing work not for the money but because they enjoy it. Part of this performance is that of intimacy. Expressing familiarity with the audience builds trust and creates the impression of bottom-up influence. Additionally, the construction of an entrepreneur working for the self adds to this feeling of one of us. This entrepreneurialism is part of a broader discourse of self-realization which positions influencers as motivated people trying to make a living by providing a service they want to provide for followers they care about. In striking a balance between commerciality and authenticity, the goal is for the desired audience to feel as though what is being sold to them is not being sold to them.
In contending with platform infrastructures, creators and researchers alike found that certain performances of authenticity are preferred over others. Platforms are moderated with certain morality which may endorse some views and demote others. This moderation further gets internalized by producers. This may operate on the level of production practice or on the level of content. For instance, influencers change their practices along with changes in platform affordances and metrics. They may post more often, make use of stories, and post certain content at certain times to utilize the touch points in the life of their imagined audience. Additionally, each platform has different production requirements. For instance, creators who blog and post on Instagram reported a contrast in the pace of production. Blogging feels slower and measured whereas Instagram is faster, and spontaneous. The two have differing ideas of authentic work. While in blogging the authenticity takes the shape of “I have spent some time thinking about this perspective and want to share it with you” on Instagram it manifests as “I am just living my life and wanted to share this moment with you”. Platforms and users are mutually shaping each other within a broader media ecology and informing what kind of content goes where. Simply put, different platforms afford different authenticities and thus, different audiences.
Authenticity is relational
It is undeniable that the performance of authenticity is crucial to labor and digital culture at large. Advertisers recruit micro-celebrities because their audiences are small enough for the creator to engage with a large portion of their followers, thus appearing authentic. Creators downplay the capital required to do their work not to be perceived as sell-outs. However, determining what is and is not authentic can be an unproductive endeavor. In part, it can be difficult to determine who is being authentic and who is not online. However, more importantly, a given performance is perceived as authentic based on one’s subjective understanding of the concept. Apart from the stakeholders studied, even the researchers had their own ideas of what it means to be authentic. In my opinion, the most productive way to reconcile this multiplicity of ideas of authenticity is through a relational understanding of authenticity: certain performances of authenticity work for certain groups of people within a certain context.
The same performance can be deemed authentic and inauthentic by different groups of people. I personally find the creators that explicitly say that their work is a performance and ask their audience to not fall into the trap of feeling like I know them as authentic. However, others see it as inauthentic because they are being dishonest by hiding who their “true self” is.
More useful questions in this space may be, “what performance of authenticity is taking place? In what ways does it manifest? What audience does it attract? Why is it conducive to this audience? How has the performance adapted to a changing context?”
Gaurika Chaturvedi is a Research Master’s student in the New Media & Digital Culture track at the University of Amsterdam