2019 hasn’t been my year. Parts of my life have crumbled and work that I’ve done on my mental and physical health has regressed. If you looked on my Instagram though, you’d have no idea. It’s all happy pictures from weddings and summer festivals, a staccato stream of career successes and one photo of a very large mozzarella cheese.
There’s nothing new about what I’m describing; if anything, it’s been said before. A thousand times. We know that social media is not a reflection of reality. There have been conversations about it from the moment people worked out how to use filters to do more than just make things sepia-toned.
In the interests of full disclosure, I’ll tell you now that I even played with the brightness on that mozzarella photo.
Since we were teenagers, millennials have been living in a world where it’s cool to project a much more exciting life than the ones we’re actually living. From carefully curating our MySpace pages to deciding which snaps were Facebook profile picture material and selecting our hottest photos for dating apps, designing versions of our lives for different parts of the internet has become second nature for us.
Recently though, there has been a backlash. In the past couple of weeks there has been a sharp focus on the difference between online personas and IRL personhood. Instagram scammer Caroline Calloway’s former friend/ghost writer revealed how they crafted her online presence. Meanwhile, Tavi Gevinson dug into the negative impact of living her "life as a brand" on Instagram.
From carefully curating our MySpace pages to deciding which photos were Facebook profile picture material, designing versions of our lives for the internet has become second nature.
'Authenticity' has become a buzzword. In psychology, it’s a well established concept. For existentialists it measured the degree to which a person's actions reflected their beliefs and desires, regardless of external pressures. Today, it’s used to describe everything from being open about your mental health struggles to posting a no-makeup selfie – and it has become social currency.
Scroll through Instagram for long enough and you’ll see this shift in the types of things being posted. Influencers’ perfect holiday shots and Facetuned selfies have been replaced with a new wave of less polished photo tropes. Bikini photos are unfiltered and posted alongside captions about celebrating cellulite or stomach rolls. Romantic sunset shots are accompanied by long messages about how the Instagrammer was really feeling at that moment. And it’s starting to trickle down to those of us who don’t have thousands of followers, too.
The move away from crafting an ideal online life makes sense. Research from 2016 showed that only 32% of people said they were always honest online. Other studies and articles have demonstrated that the perfect lives we pretend to have on social media are linked to growth in teenage depression, self-esteem issues, the loneliness epidemic and demand for plastic surgery.
It’s clearly important that the stories told and pictures shared on social media include the bad as well as the good. But has the authenticity movement got a more uncomfortable side? By social media's nature – the very fact that it is performative – can you ever be truly authentic on there? Does aiming for authenticity just create new pressures?
Psychologist Cortney S. Warren is an expert in honesty and self-deception. She says the advent of social media has been a journey of self-exploration for us all: "It’s the first generation that was raised with the internet. They’ve had a platform to explore themselves in a more public way than has been the case, to present yourself in ways that are honest and in ways that aren’t."
One person who has watched this happen is Lucy Loveridge, global head of talent at Gleam Futures, a digital-first talent agency that represents big names ranging from lifestyle and beauty vlogger Tanya Burr to cleaning influencer Mrs Hinch.
"Creators on social media originally became successful because the audience found someone they could relate to," she says. "There was a period of time between then and now where creators started to professionalise and improve the quality of their content. In some cases it has gone too far and certain creators have lost their authenticity. We’re now seeing a resurgence of the raw sharing of real life and a higher engagement with this. It’s how you can really get to know someone."
Millennials are the first generation that was raised with the internet. They've had a platform to explore themselves in a public way, to present yourself in ways that are honest and in ways that aren't.
Cortney. S. Warren
Feelings are something that many of us haven't shared online since we had a LiveJournal. Now, though, it seems there’s a moral pressure – an imperative even – to reveal bits of yourself that you previously kept IRL only.
For me, that’s terrifying. I’d rather acquaintances only know blurry details about my existence, keeping the firm outline of who I am for my closest friends. I’m bad at talking about my feelings with my mum, let alone with strangers. The bad news for me is that right now, spilling your honest feelings is the best way to go.
Dating apps Hinge and Badoo report that the most honest and sincere user profiles do the best. Daters want to get an instant idea of who you really are and what makes you unique. Badoo designed the app in a way that they hope encourages people to be their real selves. "When we looked at dating language we saw a false level of perfection and aspiration," says Natasha Briefel, Badoo's UK marketing director. "It creates self-doubt, and dating app mechanisms fuel that even more, swiping and imagery rather than having full information about people."
On Instagram, influencers say the impact of opening up can be massive. For up-and-coming model and filmmaker Florence Kosky, being authentic online has helped her get an important message across and make proper connections. Having lost friends to suicide, the 23-year-old, who is signed to Models 1, posts honest stories about that reality for her 10,000 followers. "Modelling gives you a platform. If I care about stuff it’s silly not to use it for those things," she says. "Going through that, experiencing what happens when people don’t talk about their feelings, you can see the really negative effects."
Kosky is a strong advocate for being true to yourself online. "There’s no point trying to be something you’re not ever," she says. "Things you care about, your sense of humour or what you actually [look like] rather than the Facetuned version of yourself... I think you might as well represent yourself as yourself. Otherwise you’re going to end up more miserable."
That said, it’s not all good. Being authentic on social media can be tricky as we’re all changing all the time. "You might think you know yourself very well," says psychologist Michelle Drouin, a relationship and technology expert. "And then that could change. You might look back at things you’ve posted years back and think, OMG that’s not me." As we age we experience more things, and our beliefs and desires change; what is authentic to us now might not be authentic to us in a few years.
Additionally, even those people who claim to be authentic might not be. Because there is now a public desire for openness, it means that – as Gevinson discusses in her essay – it’s being commodified.
If the internet is a shopfront where we get work, get dates and get famous, then right now it’s authenticity that sells. Demi Lovato’s recent Instagram post about her cellulite got more likes than any of her previous ones. Former Love Island contestant Malin Andersson is building an entire career off revealing her true feelings about her body. And that's great, if it's coming from a real place. However the pivot to openness that's happening on some high profile channels is more like a change in aesthetic than a change in moral integrity. There’s a new wave of up-and-coming influencers who are rejecting the Instagram aesthetic for something that feels more 'raw' because it earns them likes, followers and, therefore, money.
Kosky has noticed that some of her peers are joining in with the movement to be more authentic in a way that she believes is less about being true to themselves and more about projecting a different kind of 'perfect', one that’s socially acceptable.
"There’s a pressure to be really hot," she says. "But also to be an activist and to be living clean. It’s still curated and everyone still cares about having followers and likes. I’ve seen a couple of videos of people filming themselves, obviously just wanting to take a selfie video, but they’ll be talking to camera like, 'Click the link in my bio' [to some activist cause]. It’s a weird thing because it makes authenticity less authentic."
We have to ask ourselves whether anything posted for other people to see can ever be truly 'authentic'. Consider when Facebook launched and suddenly it was cool to post 80 photos of you hammered on a night out, rather than eight pretentious MySpace pictures. We were still curating a version of ourselves, just a slightly different one.
Drouin agrees that it’s almost impossible not to show a curated version of your life on social media. "In my friend group the people who post nothing are probably people who have a lot of things to brag about," she says. "So then in order to post something that makes them seem like the rest of us they’ll post something very normal, like 'Here I am in the grocery line'. They’re not lying but instead of bragging about the beautiful lives they lead, they’re trying to say they’re just like everyone else."
It makes sense that you'd want to hold back from posting things that people might find annoying – especially at a time when 'realness' is trending – and instead post things that people engage with more positively or that will help you connect with followers better. Even Gevinson has admitted to having a third, private Instagram account that only she had access to and used to post huge brags about how she was living that she’d never share publicly.
Kosky is so aware of the impact of faux-authenticity on models and influencers with platforms that it’s made her think carefully about the kinds of things she posts on her channel. She tells me that earlier this year a mental health charity asked her to post a photo and caption about body image for a campaign they were running. It was a message she was keen to support – "Obviously I’ve got insecurities and there are parts of my body that I don’t like" – but she was also worried about feeding into what she feels is a wave of faux-authentic posts riding on the back of the body positivity movement.
"I was like, 'Oh my god what picture am I going to post?'" she says. "A girl who is in the skinnier side of the population and model taking a picture in my underwear being like, 'It's so brave of me to post this'. If you’ve got 13-year-old girls following you then that can be equally bad for them to see. I just took a stupid selfie instead to write about."
Not everyone is approaching the new zeitgeist so critically, though. And as the prizes for presenting an 'authentic' version of ourselves on social media increase, we have to examine our motivation.
Warren says that in order to do this, we need to consider our goals. "Deliberately trying to post images that you find hard sharing can be really healthy," she says. "Vulnerability makes you closer to other people. But it can also be unhealthy if you’re not really sure about what you’re doing and why. It can be shame-provoking, manipulative or attention-seeking."
She adds that if you’re a private person, it’s just as authentic to keep the hard stuff offline as it is for a very open person to reveal all their secrets online. The key thing is to be authentic with yourself. "I fundamentally believe that the goal is to be honest with yourself all the time," she says. "The more you are with yourself, the better. It gives you the power to live the life you want to live."
As someone who often races through life without thinking, this is advice I’m going to take on board. In a society that still favours success and attractiveness above all else, it’s much higher risk for a normal person to open up about their uglier or less successful side online than it is for someone with the support that comes with being rich, famous or powerful. If your post goes down badly, there’s no PR to pick up the pieces.
If you are that brave then I’m in awe of you, but I feel fine with accepting that I am not. As women we’re pigeonholed by others all the time: as fragile, as bossy, as homemakers or sexual objects. To be honest, it’s nice to have an outlet where I pigeonhole myself. So when I do consider why I post only positive things on my social media channels, it’s largely because they make me happy: a joyful picture of my friends, some work I’m proud of, a thirst trap I posted for a dopamine rush when I was brutally hungover. I want my Instagram to be an antidote to my life rather than a place to work on my problems. And that’s fine with me – I’m dealing with them elsewhere.