Each year the amount of online influencers is growing. “Being a YouTuber is now the most popular aspiration for children today,” The Guardian claims. Influencers appeal to large groups of followers who are inspired by posts, photos, blogs and vlogs of their idols. Online identity is a key aspect of influencers popularity, because people tend to follow those who stand for certain ideas, styles or attitudes. But online identity is easily manipulated, and fake news and messages, or phoney profiles and accounts, are a constant threat to online credibility. As a result 'authenticity' has become a primary concern of the online world.
Influencers, identity and authenticity
Anna Nooshin is a girl who started making videos in the early 2010s. Today she is a famous Dutch influencer and she has her own YouTube channel with over 250.000 subscribers. She publishes books and has appeared as a fashion and lifestyle pundit on national commercial television. Her online identity is carefully composed, and according to her fans she is an authentic role model.
"Authenticity has become a subtle game..."
Building an audience seems simple, but it is not. It is a meticulously planned process, demanding dedication and hard work: you can never let your fans down. They expect new posts or new videos every day or week. Each new post has to match the older posts in terms of credibility, personality, identity or authenticity. “It has to match my style,” Nooshin explains to Dutch newspaper NRC, “or else my fans won't accept it.”
Anna Nooshins 'authenticity' is hard to grasp for people who don't follow her. As a non-insider I simply cannot figure out what is or what isn't a typical ‘Nooshin style’. In order to define her style I would have to read her online stories and engage in the online community she has built around her personality. I should ‘go native’ as anthropologists tend to say.
But even then I cannot give an objective definition of her style. Nooshin herself doesn't seem to bother much about her 'authenticity'. It is what her fans say it is, she claims. Her fans determine whether an item matches her personality or not. And she has a point there, Nooshin cannot simply switch styles without alienating at least part of her fans. So ‘authenticity is in the eye of the beholder’? Or is there more to it than meets the eye?
Real or fake online identities?
Your online identity is supposed to match offline identity: that is rule number one when it comes to being 'authentic'. But how is it possible to determine if these match when you have no chance of meeting someone in person? “People assume I have a great life and everything is handed to me. I live with my parents and I work from a desk in my room,” 24-year-old micro-influencer Jordan Bunker confessed to The Guardian. “Online they feature in glossy posts as the epitome of cool. But that is often worlds apart from how they live their lives.”
Another common assumption is that offline identity is the true identity of a person, and online is a virtual space where physical and social laws do not apply. But if this was really true, why does the online world have more and more impact on the offline world? This misconception is rooted in the early days of the internet when virtual spaces such as bulletin boards and chatrooms offered an escape from real life. But since then the reality of the social media has become social reality itself: from meeting new people to bonding with your friends or dating, it all happens online. The boundaries between online and offline social spaces are dissolving rapidly.
My own online life, for example, has become an intrinsic part of my ‘real life’. I simply cannot function socially without Whatsapp, for instance. I would not only miss all the small talk and gossip, but also all the important appointments and rendezvous.
The offline world has limited possibilities to express and present yourself. In the offline world you are bound to time and place, to a restricted set of resources, examples or role models in a fixed social network. The online world, on the other hand, offers huge possibilities for inspiration and new ideas. The opportunities of the online world seem endless for young people ready to conquer the world.
But if it is possible to build up an identity, which one do you choose? With the overwhelming amount of new opportunities it has become even harder to select an identity that fits like a glove. The main challenge for all the ‘new kids on the block’ is remaining 'true' to your offline identity and standing out from the crowd at the same time.
How do you distinguish yourself from all the other wannabe-influencers and ‘be yourself’ at the same time? Do you want to live the same life you live amongst friends or do you want to explore the opportunities online culture has to offer, and experiment with a new identities as a Gothic girl, Roman soldier,Trekkie or Bronie?
Modern life has knocked us out of orbit, pushing us out of the stable and well-arranged relations of the primary social groups we used to live in. As we stray from one social setting to another, our identity inevitably transforms and our lives become ‘liquid,’ as Polish-British sociologist Zygmunt Bauman suggests.
life is lived ‘in and through’ media
Online presence has become part of daily life with practices like taking selfies, tagging friends on Facebook and Instagram, and presenting online resumes to potential employers. Because life itself is increasingly lived ‘in and through’ media, we become more and more ‘self-defining’, as Dutch professor of Narrative Communication José Sanders states. In the near future it will be totally acceptable to manage your online identity.
And with new possibilities come new responsibilities: if online identity is easy to manipulate, it will become necessary to manage and maintain your online identity, just as it goes without saying that you comb your hair, brush your teeth and leave your home properly dressed. Just as it is improper to neglect your public appearance, it will be less socially acceptable if you don't take care of your online identity.
Just as we teach our kids how to dress properly, we have to learn how to behave properly online. It's a culturally defined process, not an innate or natural habit. Teenagers feel the need to experiment with their own style and identity, partly because they want to distinguish themselves from their parents and partly because of peer pressure . Like all experiments, sometimes a test fails and you have to start all over again. This is what two Dutch Youtubers found out when they were arrested outside the ‘Area 51’ air force base in Nevada in the United States.
Online teens are involved - sometimes quite painfully - in what American sociologist Ervin Goffman called impression management: conscious or unconscious attempts to control one's appearance and impression on other people. “On Instagram appearance is all that matters, it seems. [...] The positive world you want to be a part of sometimes feels very superficial,” a girl confesses to Dutch magazine Vrij Nederland. And indeed, the explicit posing does seem unreal; you only show the nice side of yourself and leave out all the ugly sides.
To be honest, we all are involved in presenting ourselves to the outside world in a favourable fashion. “Aenea (15) compares it to the clothes we wear...,” Kelli van der Waals writes in Vrij Nederland. For teens it has become a daily routine to experiment with their online appearance. But is that really bad? Experimenting can also offer added value. Back in 1999, American psychologist Sherry Turkle argued that online practise with multiple identities was part of normal development in a child's life. Teenagers have to go through a stage of experimenting with their identity, and the online world offers them ample opportunity to explore different aspects of their 'self'.
Of course teens know their online identity is fabricated. For them that is part of the game. They switch easily between online and offline and mingle quite naturally in multiple social settings. At the same time they learn that digital life is demanding; just one identity is often insufficient to navigate the web of offline and online cultures and meet the expectations of all those sometimes very different social settings. So it becomes convenient to "to display a whole repertoire of identities in order to be socially 'normal',” Belgian professor of Digital Culture Jan Blommaert argues.
Layers of meaning
Underneath a hotel window a group of girls looks up in order to catch a glimpse of their idol. Dutch author Rob van Essen describes this situation in his book Kind van de verzorgingsstaat (Child of the welfare state). One moment they scream in a frenzy, the other moment they laugh at their own silly and childish behaviour. Van Essen points out that in reflecting on their own behaviour, the teenage girls “show that they were fully aware of the unusual and idiotic situation.” When the celebrities show themselves the girls behave as outrageous fans, but as soon as the object of their desire retreats, the group becomes self-centred again and their members seek comfort and acknowledgement from each other.
This behaviour seems immature, but it can be very useful in teen development. Modern society urges its members to seamlessly adapt to social settings. Those who switch most easily, comfortably, and effortlessly between those different layers of interpretation in complex situations become the most successful in modern day society. And like the girls in the example demonstrate, reflection on their own behaviour helps them develop those important social skills.
Online, the social contexts around us change even more rapidly than they do offline. Social media provide us with the ability to add even more new layers of meaning upon the existing ones. Platforms such as YouTube expand the ability to add new experiences like voice-over or picture-in-picture techniques to revive old footage or display on games, as popular influencers like PewDiePie or Flemish gamer Kastiop demonstrate. And the practice of adding emoji, memes, and visual and audio features to existing texts, photos, or videos offers even more distinct layers of meaning.
“The ability to easily switch contexts assumes an ephemeral social situation; this cannot be taken for granted in digital environments,” danah boyd, a pioneering American social media researcher, states. Flexibility is an essential quality in order to maintain your position in a society where fixed social settings with rigid attitudes no longer hold.
An identity paradox?
Managing or manufacturing your online identity seems a bit strange, assuming you cannot actually alter your 'true self'. It does seem contradictory to our common notion of identity as an intrinsic part of our personality. To fully understand this paradox we have to look for the roots of the phenomena 'identity' and 'authenticity'.
In the true spirit of the Enlightenment, you can objectify, analyse and study the world around you in order to control it. Modern man has been able to manage the environment, to diminish illness, and to study and control the behaviour of other creatures, animal and man. In this manner you can objectify and manipulate your identity as well. But the romantic view holds that every person is unique and his or her identity is an essential part of the self and cannot be altered or removed.
This paradox has dominated the debate over popular culture and media. Critical thinkers like Walter Benjamin and The Frankfurter Schule held on to the true meaning of identity in the romantic sense, creating a division between ‘image’ and ‘identity’. This division remained standing when researchers began studying communication and marketing. ‘Branding’ is a method of managing audience perception. Nowadays it is culturally accepted and common practice. In applying for a new job trainees and employees even are encouraged to do some 'personal branding'. But as some tweaking and primping is allowed, excessive and obvious manipulation can achieve an opposite effect. In 2018 Dutch pop musician Dotan was confronted with news stories of non-existing fans and fake accounts, and as a result the fans turned against him.
'Authenticity' offers a stronghold in world that has become ever more liquid. Authenticity is to remain ‘true to yourself’. But some argue that a well-defined ‘self' is an illusion, there simply is no inner core. Introspection will not help you to ‘find yourself’. The only way to truly discover who you are is through and with the aid of other people. Identity is an attribution other people assign to you, Belgian psychologist Paul Verhaeghe states. Identity cannot be separated from circumstances or social context. Who you 'are' is not only a question of 'true self', it also depends on the people surrounding you, and therefore your identity at home is not the same as your identity at work or in the pub.
Identity is an attribution other people assign to you
But if identity is the result of an interplay between 'self' and social setting, how can you possible to be truly authentic? And what effect does this interplay have on fans, because in a mediated environment social settings vary more from person to person than they do in a shared physical environment. Hence my perception of someone being authentic does not have to resemble the perception of some fan a thousand miles away in a different country.
Mass media and popular culture
In the mass media 'authenticity' has played a pivotal role since the 60s and 70s when musicians started calling themselves ‘artists’ in the romantic sense, and identified themselves with poets, writers and painters. Before this time the music industry simply told artists what to play and how to dress, as you can see on early Stones and Beatles releases. But frontrunners like John Lennon or Bob Dylan took control over their own music, their appearance and their publicity. From this moment on rock stars started experimenting with their 'image' and some even starting playing with it, changing appearance at a pace as normal people change clothes. We all know the examples of celebrities like David Bowie or Madonna. In the eyes of their fans they managed to keep their identity, they remained 'authentic'. And miraculously, this even added up to their ‘image’ of an ‘authentic’ star.
But just as chameleonesque behaviour can contribute to someone's popularity, at the same time it can evoke a desire for more sincerity, a longing for uprightness in an online culture where nothing is what it looks like. Nowadays authenticity has become a subtle game that is played between an idol and his or her fans and followers. Even the mainstream media play a major role in the perception of true or false, real or fake. The boundaries between the real thing and just pretending are constantly shifting. “The subject has to coincide with its authentic self, although it can never determine what this self really is,” Dutch philosopher Maarten Doorman states in his book De romantische orde.
Even online there is no total freedom in tailoring your identity; Mark Zuckerberg will pin you down to just one identity, and when searching online Google will push you in predestined directions using all sorts of suggestions and algorithmic trickery. And even when you reach the Olympus to join the inner circle of well-known celebrities, your fans or followers will hold you to their expectations. Fans are demanding and will not allow you to change your carefully designed online identity. When your fans turn their back against you, you will not get them back. An online reputation can be very persistent: "Some say he 'has lost his credibility and he doesn't have to count for renewed success,..." the Dutch news site Nu.nl writes about the Dotan fake account issue.
Who do you want to be?
Identity can best be understood as a constant showdown between two opposing forces: one striving for autonomy and the other for belonging to a person or a group. It is a constant struggle without a final outcome. The pursuit of a unique individual quality, an authentic self, is a lifetime quest. As Maarten Doorman argues: “The authenticity of the romantic subject, paradoxically, will express its most true meaning in the ‘endeavour’, in striving for this authenticity.”
But this endeavour presupposes a choice, a range of options, multiple alternatives, and there's the catch. If we were free to choose between a range of possible identities, what is the best option? Who can say? The only one likely to make that choice is you. And maybe the most important conclusion is that online identity is not about who you ‘are’, but about who you ‘want to be’. And like all true quests this is a journey without an end, the destination is the road itself.
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