- Gender, Social Media, and the Labor of Authenticity
In 2012 I wrote Authentic™: The Politics of Ambivalence in a Brand Culture, where I thought through what it means to organize our lives—politically, culturally, socially—in an age of branding and commodity activism that centered on a concept of the “authentic.”1 I argued that in contemporary capitalism, corporate marketing efforts are about building an affective relationship with a consumer, one based on a set of memories, emotions, personal narratives, and expectations that resonate in a felt, “organic” way. Throughout the book I focused on the branding of authenticity in these cultural realms, where brands become the setting around which individuals weave their own “authentic” stories, where individuals position themselves as the authentic characters in the narrative of their constructed self-brand. In recent years, this imperative to build an authentic relationship as part of a brand has shifted from a product-based corporate sensibility, where corporations craft relationships with consumers, to a more personalized—though no less corporate—sensibility, where social media and the rise of the “influencer” create an intensified version of authenticity in the production of culture. In many ways, influencers on social media now exemplify the most developed form of brand authenticity (for themselves as brands).
Though of course social media was around in 2012, some of the major platforms like Instagram had not yet achieved the heightened visibility they enjoy today, and the imperative to present oneself and to produce a self-brand on social media was not nearly as normative as it is in 2020. Instagram, which launched in 2010, is a site where one posts photos and videos of oneself; its original mission was “to capture and share the world’s moments.” But rather than capturing the world’s moments, Instagram is much more about carefully and strategically curating individual lives; along with YouTube, it has become the key place for “influencers” to launch their careers, as people who are “paid to use their personal magnetism to promote specific agendas online.”2 Instagram influencers craft their self-brand around discourses of “authenticity,” where they are more commercially successful the more relatable, intimate, and vulnerable [End Page 141] their self-presentation. Yet at the same time, to be “authentic” for influencers also means to strictly conform to dominant white, cis-gender norms.
Indeed, authenticity has a heightened, and complex, significance in the context of social media. In this era of fake news, deepfakes, and the wide circulation of misinformation, where particular concepts of the “truth” are questioned, authenticity means both more and less: the mandate to present as “authentic” has become more urgent, even as we increasingly no longer believe in the concept of the authentic. Of course, authenticity has always been a messy concept, and one that is deeply contextual, contingent, and cultural. Yet even within these contingencies, authenticity has always depended on the actors who are presenting themselves as authentic.
Thus, positioning oneself as authentic has been a necessity for successful influencers on social media. Influencers promise their followers authenticity, where their selves are mediated apparently by us rather than by content-producing media institutions. Social media assures users that what they are seeing is, somehow, unmediated and authentic. Yet of course, all representations are mediated, and perhaps even more so on social media, where programs and apps enable us to create an “authentic” yet fabricated identity. Social media, in other words, makes this production of a contrived authenticity easy.
Importantly, the stakes are higher for women to create an authentic persona. Obviously there is no “authentic self” circulating in social media, but the price women pay for not being authentic is high. Women have been historically told (through all sorts of media and institutions) that their “real” selves are not good enough, and certainly not to be trusted. So within institutions (such as politics, media, and the law) women are routinely not believed, and on social media, the media platforms continually authorize how to “fake” one’s identity to make it, ironically, more believable—and more profitable.
The role of professional influencer has been particularly profitable for women (especially white, cis-gendered women), but this success...