“She’s so fake” is an insult quick to make an appearance in any classic middle school adversarial diatribe. Regina George’s infamous army of mean girl minions are dubbed “The Plastics.” In fiction and the grade school imagination, authenticity is the mark of a good person while artificiality is recognized as obviously unfavorable. When someone or something is real or “the realest” that’s a good thing. They are down-to-earth, honest and sincere. And it makes perfect sense. There is little appeal or connection in someone that puts on a facade or a front. It’s off putting and hard to interpret someone who appears calculated and contrived, peppered with pretense, putting on airs.
In today’s world of headlines and hashtags, this fixation with authenticity has shifted to the social media sphere. In this culture that often asks for access, being real is often equated with being revealing. No, not in a #FreeTheNipple sort of way, but in a way that asks and allows us to turn our lives and feeds into tell-alls.
In November, Australian model Essena O’Neill was ironically plastered all across social media after filming a video in which she vowed to quit social media. She recaptioned her old Instagram photos to expose hidden insecurities that her original, seemingly flawless photos concealed. She pointed out zits and personal insecurities, and addressed the elusive world of Instagram sponsorship.
Then, Instagram Barbie came on the scene. With her thick-framed glasses and flannels, she shamed any of us that dared to think that we were the slightest bit original or artistic. She imitated the trends that we might not have realized had become so trite: In all her traditional brunette Barbie beauty she stood casually in pumpkin patches, walked across misty abandoned railroad tracks, lazed in hammocks, showed us high angle shots of her legs stretched out on a white bed spread, or her hand delicately placed next to a decorative latté, each surrounded by a casual arrangement of minimalist magazines or a succulent that she just happened to have in bed next to her. It was all very practiced and all very posed. You might have thought you were the only one who had done it, or maybe you vaguely remembered someone else who had, but in actuality everyone had, and now so had Barbie. The mass manufactured doll, literally made out of plastic, was now making fun of you. She flawlessly adhered to the trendy Instagram formulas and cleverly mocked the forethought put into pretending to #LiveAuthentic, something that by definition seems that it should come about organically. Even Barbie was criticizing the “fakeness” of social media.
The Internet also widely circulated a series of photos featuring the Instagram frame and highlighting the less photogenic elements surrounding the photo that had been eliminated from the actual Instagram photograph. Headlines on articles sharing the album called the exclusion of certain elements from the frame a “lie.” Implying that failing to include any of the surrounding information was dishonest and deceptive.
Overall, last year the Internet had a collective moment of satisfaction in revealing the trickery and contrivance of Instagram, and relished in the epiphany of exposing what’s “really happening” and it all felt very accusatory.
Popular culture has grown increasingly enamored with people and celebrities who put forth images as the real and relatable “girl next door” (or maybe more like exaggerated versions of your neighbor across the street that parties a little too much, isn’t afraid to burp loudly and guffaw hysterically at funny cat videos). They are lovingly lauded as familiar friends. Jennifer Lawrence and her clumsiness, Amy Schumer and her antics, and Anna Kendrick’s self-deprecating charm are all perceived as delightfully forthright. They are often portrayed as giant children, who pride themselves on being hot messes and aren’t afraid to share their embarrassing drunken anecdotes with sometimes cringeworthy candor. Less whimsical but just as quirky as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, this current infatuation is yet another familiar attempt to mold women into an archetypal fantasy. The disheveled, down-to-earth dame is often just as much of a brand as the carefully curated Instagram girl.
Overexposure is associated with sincerity while there is something shallow and misleading about someone who holds back. No-boundary storytellers are raw, relatable, and honest, while the more reserved or polished presentation is seen as wrongly withholding something. However, as much as Facebook might like to believe that because Jennifer Lawrence doesn’t turn her nose up to potatoes or cheese burgers, she is just like all the rest of us, her persona is still to an extent, a construct crafted in part for and by the public and viewed through a series of filters. To believe that the Internet and social media are an accurate depiction of who someone is or that viewers have the authority to truly determine what is true and sincere is a falsity.
This isn’t all to say that intentional deception doesn’t occur, that the security instilled from the barriers of a screen on social media doesn’t have the potential to feed into insecurities, competition and comparison, and that it doesn’t create yet another environment to continue toxic interpersonal dynamics. Heavily edited lives, carefully crafted narratives, and the economics of sponsored posts can be very confusing for the viewer and consuming for the poster.
Intentionally putting forth a persona is not a practice reserved for the online world. This sort of posturing is not unique to the Internet.
Social media users cannot allow themselves to invest their identities in an onscreen image, or interpret those of others that way. It is not untrue that selective cropping in some instances may focus on something frivolous while taking advantage of the privilege to ignore larger societal issues. It cannot be denied that there are social media users who shape images for themselves and their lives. But choosing to crop out your dirty laundry from a photo of your cat isn’t dangerously deceitful. Opting to reserve certain moments for yourself or a select few isn’t duplicitous. Instagram is a platform for sharing photographs. And be it for art, advertisement, or amusement, photography requires one to make decisions about what to show and how to show it. There is an amount of cropping and curation that will inevitably occur.
Sharing a superficial view of one’s life on social media doesn’t necessarily make someone a vapid person. Choosing to show only the exterior or share only on a surface level with the plethora of acquaintances and strangers on the Internet does not mean that someone lacks a complex interior. This evaluation of realness incorrectly assumes that we can actually know someone based on their public portrayal.
Maybe someone chooses to share a snap of their shoes or a glossy photo of an attractive cheese plate that made them happy rather than a tender moment with their ailing grandmother. Some moments are sloppy or sacred, and it’s okay to keep them to ourselves. Why is such intimate access owed? We are allowed to choose what we want others to see and the lense through which it is viewed. Opening up can be brave, and acknowledging shared experiences can be affirming and comforting, but choosing not to is not inherently shallow or shameful. While it can be raw and moving when someone does decide to share a range of personal triumphs and sorrows, we cannot always demand this access from people just because social media makes it possible. It is rewarding to let people into our lives, but we can still choose how much to share and whom to share it with.
However in depth you decide to allow your followers to peek into your life, at the end of the day it is probably still alway better to log off and go outside, or talk to your mom who’s awesome and likely really annoyed that you’ve had your phone in your face since the bread basket arrived at the table.