“If I have to hear one more skinny white bitch say ‘you know … I always say ‘just be authentic’,” my partner said to me, “I’m going to cut someone.”
The genesis of this comment was not a latent stabby streak — my partner doesn’t have a murderous bone in her body — but a day-long series of panels at SXSW featuring a murderer’s row of “skinny white bitches” covering everything from personal branding to personal branding. The advice touted ranged from the insidiously vapid: “Fuel what your soul is craving,” to the bewilderingly vague: “We have something for everybody while staying true to who we are.”
Undeniably, in a world filled with fake news, airbrushed models, perfectly poured matcha lattes and ads disguised as hashtag-content, there’s a hunger out there for people starved of authenticity. And yet, these panelists — despite their calls to the contrary — are those most gleefully and joyfully projecting falsehoods and half-truths into the abyss, as if the upper limits of authenticity scrape only as high as the basement ceilings of their brands, banging on it with a broom to be let out. “What’s that noise? Oh … haha! That’s authenticity. Don’t worry … she’s fine. She’ll come out when it’s time.”
The hashtag-authentic IG post is now a trope that’s almost as uniform as the rest of Instagram. It’s generally a black-and-white and/or no-makeup post, captioned with a gravitas that cuts just deep enough to draw blood but not actually enough to hurt. If there’s a challenge facing someone, it’s named in only the most general or benign terms, or its such a first-world problem that it’s the kind of problem the common-folk could only dream of having.
Or, maybe it’s an admission of sorts — “it took me 120 photos to get this perfect shot” — that details the immense pressure of standing still and looking pretty, followed by the inevitable word parsing that must be done to craft the perfectly complimentary caption, usually sounding as though it was written by an over-caffeinated cheer captain, even on their darkest of days, followed by a “comment below if you agree.”
Before I continue, I must point out that skewering influencer “culture” will come across as somewhat gendered, and every influencer I know personally is, in fact, a woman. Additionally, as a straight white cisgendered American man, there’s obviously layers upon layers of privilege that I, personally, do not have to deal with as a “content creator” on the Internet, and so the term “influencer,” no matter how gender-agnostic it may seem to most, becomes a bit charged when coming out of my mouth in particular.
There are, in fact, male “influencers” on Instagram — and they’re every bit as grating and obtuse. They pose leaning against a Rolls Royce, in rented or gifted suits costing several thousand dollars, either captioned with nothing at all, or something like “feeding the beast,” or something presumably profound and inspirational, like:
“It’s all beautiful. The challenges. The championships. The ups and downs. The pain and loss. The love and peace. Throughout this magical journey I’m so grateful for it all. It all gives me a powerful perspective and opens my mind to what is possible. If you are grateful for everything in your life as well leave a ❤️ below.”
Indeed, the big-print word-cloud tropes of the “authenticity” movement are concepts like: “gratitude,” “mindfulness” and “self-love.” These are dispensed as free ideas, but they’ve been filtered and distilled beyond the point of attainability: gratitude, mindfulness and self-love are virtue-signalling dog whistles that ladder up to a sort of noveau-riche luxury brand where being your best self is the new conspicuous consumption: All sound baths, yoga retreats and digital detoxes; green juices, SoulCycles and sea turtle conservatories in Costa Rica. Available to almost everyone, affordable to almost no one.
The shame we feel while eavesdropping on these super-positive super-humans no longer lies entirely in seeing, so closely, what we wish we had, but rather in who we wish we could be, if we weren’t so damn busy worrying about when the direct deposit will hit next or if there will be free and fair elections in 2020.
“That’s the problem with culture today — no one can handle anything deep,” bemoans an influencer friend of mine who is also a disturbingly excellent long-form writer, “We live in a world where saying ‘omg guys I just loveeee this sweater’ is the best content ever created.”
She, of course, continues to feed the machine with photos of her standing casually against a wall, and captions as banal as she most assuredly isn’t. I needle her on this.
“It’s just the way mass society is now. I’d also like to cross examine and say actually a lot of these influencers now have business skills,” she continues. “They have to be able to manage deadlines, etc. it’s not just fun and games.”
I won’t dispute that. The effort to continuously push out engaging content, manage partnerships and schedule shoots is no picnic. That’s why some influencers employ copywriters to mimic their own voice or contract out professional photography work for bulk shoots — a second influencer friend informed me that most photos are, in fact, #latergrams, many shot on the same day when the weather is perfect enough for several wardrobe changes, to optimize efficiencies — or, of course, the now trope-ish “Instagram Boyfriend / Husband.” A former coworker of mine actually left her well-paying corporate job to work for her daughter, as her personal brand began to take off. It takes a village to make all villages look vaguely like a pastel Southern California.
But is that really what we want? Or is that just what we’re being fed? A discussion with a friend and LinkedIn influencer yielded this response:
“I love the simplicity and lightness of their words. I love them because they were able to reach a higher level. They are so aware of their gifts and limits intellectually and also know that this is NOT what makes them drive real change. They only speak what’s in their heart and soul. They are so humble and never pretend to be brilliant, and that’s what makes them so likable and attractive.”
I’m not here to dismiss her opinion, although I am here to question if they’re speaking what’s truly in their heart and soul, and question their humility in general, which is why I posit authenticity is merely another narrative device in their “branding.” Perhaps that’s cynicism masquerading as inquiry (which would be fantastic tagline for my work here).
There’s a cavalcade of local Austin micro-influencers (1K-20K followers) who parade around town, all posting vaguely the same things: pictures of their meals, pictures of their new hairstyles, pictures of their favorite outfits, pictures of their days spent at pristine hotels, pictures of their favorite brightly-colored walls, pictures of their own meetups at local restaurants, all in new hairstyles and favorite outfits, all sharing secrets and laughs.
“I went to an Instagram meetup, and it just wasn’t my scene,” confesses yet another local IG personality, whose brand centers on authenticity and sobriety. When I ask why, she continues, “I just don’t like the influencer culture here. These people are in it for the wrong reasons.” I ask what those reasons are, and she says, “They all just want free shit, particularly drinks, while I’m genuinely trying to help people.”
When I ask her if she thinks these people are being true to themselves, she answers, with a laugh, “Absolutely not.” She later adds, “Although if they are, I’d argue that’s even more sad.”
And it isn’t just “influencing” that’s co-opted the word authentic and perverted it into an aesthetic. The Millennial generation — in which I nominally belong but I’m more squarely in the “Xennial” camp — is obsessed with authenticity in all things: food, travel, art, brands, experiences, careers. And yet, that same “authenticity” is being weaponized and used against them by the very entities in which they seek it. And it starts with the dreaded c-word: Curation.
Curators — once confined to the world of museums — are now, if not necessarily by name, then by job description, everywhere. They’re a sort of catch-all breed that substitute for procurers, travel agents, DJs, experience designers and so on. It’s their literal job to ensure “authenticity” at every turn. Whether in the corporate world, or in art or social media (sadly, I belong to all three), we talk of people “curating” the right “content” to “elevate their brand.” Authenticity is the product itself, which is to say it’s now hard to say whether or not it exists at all.
And, in the event that it does — say, at a popular “authentic” New York pizza joint, or at an “authentic” mid-century modern resort in Palm Desert, the word spreads so far and wide that it becomes overloaded with consumers, collapsing the authenticity of the experience under the own weight of what was once billed as its competitive differentiator.
To use New Orleans as an example: first it was Bourbon Street, then it was Frenchman, now its Treme. Authenticity is a moving target in much the same way we view “up-and-coming” neighborhoods. It’s a kind of temporary gentrification. The authenticity seekers come, they experience, they tell their friends, who tell their friends, the experience gets played out, the market over-saturated, the places begin to cater to their new crowd, the experience loses its luster, and its off in search of the next true authentic thing.
To sharpen the point: Austin’s famous Sixth Street was once filled with edgy live music venues, giving the city its moniker as “The Live Music Capital of the World.” It’s now stuffed with bachelor(ette)-party-friendly shot-bars featuring (mostly) barely competent white dudes with acoustic guitars covering “Wonderwall” in the front windows for peanuts pay. I know this — I was once one of them (except, really, fuck “Wonderwall”). The evolution spanned nearly two decades, everyone noticed, and although everyone kvetches about it, no one seems all that hell-bent on reversing course. Perhaps that’s just the way capitalism works. Perhaps true authenticity is anathema to profit margins.
Naturally, I’ve been referred to on more than one occasion as the I-word. Since I’ve started writing on Medium, particularly in the past year or so, dozens of brands have emailed / texted / DM’d me about “partnerships.” I’ve turned down every single one of them, except one small cannabis company. Why? Because I want to keep editorial control, and I do not wish to sell something I don’t already do, use or believe in, nor do I wish to sell something in any fashion other than the way I typically speak: My voice. My choice.
And if I am an (*grits teeth*) influencer, then I’m not your typical influencer. I don’t have an eBook. I don’t have a mailing list. I don’t have a newsletter. I don’t post selfies. I don’t eat at trendy restaurants. I don’t stay at fancy hotels. I don’t host webinars on how to “manifest your dreams” or “unlock your inner greatness.” I don’t pretend to have a lifestyle you should aspire to. I don’t talk about “eating clean” and “training dirty.” I don’t talk about how “my heart is so full” or use phrases like “filled with gratitude.” I don’t have a granite counter-top with neatly arranged essentials. I don’t have an “aesthetic.” And I don’t awkwardly shoehorn product placement into my posts.
I am a storyteller. And, if I can finally say something nice about myself, I’m a damn great one. What I post is authentic and not hashtag authentic, because there is literally no agenda. I don’t write so much as I bleed. I examine and explore the human condition. I’m here to talk about life — the ups, the downs, the twists, the turns, and that’s all I’ve done since day one. I think deeply, report my findings, and — on Instagram at least — dress it up in over-saturated pictures of landscapes and skylines.
And there are some who say, “your pictures look fake.” That’s because they are. I mean, the photos themselves are real, but I edit them to death for a reason you may not have guessed: Rather than see things as they are, I like to picture things as they can be. And you’re seeing the world through my eyes. Call me an idealist. My photos are my art. They’re shit art, usually, but they’re art nonetheless.
You know what that’s gotten me? Everywhere. I do have a great life. I have an awesome job. I’ve met impressive and interesting people. I’ve seen things that amaze and astound me. I’ve traveled to faraway lands. I’ve made friends with smart, fascinating people. I’ve made good money. I’ve developed healthy habits. And, yes, I do talk about them. But there’s true grit and depth to it all.
I’m an open book because, in a way, my book isn’t much different than yours. I’m just a human. Trying to get it right. Trying to treat people decent, propose new ways of looking at the world, and maximize the amount of joy available to me at any given moment. I’m not here for the likes and the follows. I’m not here for the free swag. I’m here to tell stories. That you read them is a bonus … and an honor. And that’s all the “influencing” I wish to do. Stick that in your perfectly poured matcha latte and drink it.
There’s no escaping this inevitability: the Influencer Industrial Complex is coming for us all. Our own friends — fellow flesh and blood humans — weaponized as conduits, selling us a lifestyle that is as impractical as it is unattainable, about as authentic as the red checkerboard tables they trot out at Maggiano’s. Yes, that’s how Italian restaurants should look. Yes, the food is, nominally, Italian. No, it’s not an authentic Italian restaurant. It’s an approximation no different than a modern-looking village inside a bustling metropolis that’s dressed up to look like an old-time town square. They bulldozed a real thing to build it, and it was probably land that used to belong to a marginalized group, with its own culture and vibrancy that’s been stamped out, priced out and pushed out to the suburbs where the white people used to live.
You can scroll past it all in one fell swoop: The hotel pool. The sunset. The six-pack abs. The lavish dinners. The artful wardrobe. The perfect family. The fortnight in Bali. The relentless and exhausting positivity. The banal platitudes that sound just profound enough to be smart and just agreeable enough to relate to. And the pastel walls … My god, the pastel walls.
Do not compare yourselves to them. They are more magazine than human, willing and pushing to be heavily branded in the hopes of fame and free swag. They’re an experiment in just how far we can take the maxim “the surest way to get people to do what you want them to is to convince them it’s their idea.” Do not believe what you see. No one’s life is as perfect or as glamorous as you think it is, even in their darkest of moments when they hashtag it “real talk.” Photos are maps. Life is territory. Words are advertising.
In a way, this is capitalism’s logical end: humans as storefronts, personalities as products, character as brand. And whether it’s authentic or not is sort of besides the point, the real crux now is that we can no longer tell. Authenticity is bullshit. Not because it doesn’t exist — it probably does, somewhere, someplace — but because it’s irrelevant and, without being wrapped up in something (or someone) beautiful or otherwise compelling, it’s unprofitable.
Authenticity is another buzzword like “sustainability,” in that its just something you can signal to draw in a potential audience and, later, a potential customer base. For a book, or for CBD “wellness” products, or for speaking gigs at SXSW panels.
So, perhaps in search of authenticity, or being “more authentic” — whatever the fuck that means anymore — take up this cross instead. Be, and seek, genuine. Genuine is truth. It’s the original. It’s your essence distilled to its essence. It’s untainted by marketing objectives, engagement rates, personal branding, It’s un-co-opted, and un-gentrified. And, for the love of god, should you stumble upon it, or embody it, do us all a favor and don’t post about it or tell your friends. Some secrets are just too perfect to be let out into the wild.
Oscar Wilde once famously wrote, “Everything popular is wrong.” I know this, because I read it on a T-Shirt, pictured in an ad on Instagram, which was served up to me via algorithm, because Instagram knows I love dark existentialism. My own authentic interests. Used against me as hashtag-spon-con. For capitalism. And now I’m passing it onto you in my own work. I never bought the T-Shirt, but I did heart the post. After all, I genuinely like the message, ensuring I’ll see “more like this,” as the algorithm tailors my experience to my every whim. It may not be authentic, but it’s who I am.
“It may not be authentic, but it’s who I am.” The ouroboros eats its own head. The universe falls into a sink-hole. An approximation appears in its place. I hear its just like the original. Comment below if you agree.