Over the last couple of years, the cultural phenomenon of the influencer has become more and more popular on social media. When inspecting influencers, the following commonalities can be identified as characterizing them: Influencers are individuals that have some authority in a specific line of business; they have built a significant audience for themselves; and they usually get paid for promoting products. But what makes these influencers successful and popular? The key to success for influencers seems to be authenticity: García-Rapp and Roca-Cuberes (2017) have argued that authentic self-presentation in a consistent manner is crucial for the success and popularity of influencers. An authentic influencer would therefore equal a relatable, passionate, aspirational, trustworthy, and ordinary influencer that maintains ties with his or her followers. Followers appreciate it when influencers do not “fake it” on social media just to make a profit, but show some parts of who they really are: their true identity (García-Rapp & Roca-Cuberes, 2017). In this paper, the authenticity of one specific influencer – whose Instagram account I have been observing for years - will be analyzed, namely that of Ghislaine Handiri. How does Ghislaine Handiri present herself as authentic on Instagram and how does Instagram shape her authentic self-presentation?
Self-presentation on social media
Self-presentation on Instagram might be more complex than it seems. For starters, the audience of influencers consists of individuals with whom they have diverse ties – such as friends, advertisers, and fans – which results in an “edited self” (Marwick, 2013, p. 5; Marwick & Boyd, 2011). Secondly, the idea that individuals should present themselves as gorgeous creatures and that only the incredible aspects of life should be shared on social media dominates. This is the current media ideology on many platforms (Gershon, 2010).
Based on an analysis of Facebook and LinkedIn, van Dijck (2013b) also states that people believe that social media should be places for honest self-expression and revealing one’s true identity, whereas well-thought-out strategies for self-presentation and self-promotion are being applied to social media. This also applies to influencers, of whom advertisers expect to share their positive experiences with products, even when the experience didn't exist or was not positive at all. Sad and negative parts of their life should not be presented on social media, since advertisers do not want to be associated with this (García-Rapp & Roca-Cuberes, 2017). Presenting a perfect life, though, would not contribute to an authentic self-presentation and would create a paradox concerning the extent to which self-presentation and self-expression on social media are transparent.
The idea that individuals should present themselves as gorgeous creatures and that only the incredible aspects of life should be shared on social media dominates
Furthermore, influencers are not completely free in the content they post on social media, since social media can be considered mediators rather than intermediaries (van Dijck, 2013a). On the one hand, influencers have to comply with the guidelines set up by platforms (García-Rapp & Roca-Cuberes, 2017). On the other hand, the defaults and interfaces of social media, which are decided upon by platform owners, shape and influence the behavior of users. By adding or omitting certain attributes on platforms, the platforms influence the interactions of their users. In other words, the interactions of individuals online are a coproduction of humans and machines. Platform owners stimulate users to spend as much time as possible on their platforms in order to attract advertisers and sell users’ data: this is part of their business model (van Dijck, 2013a). For this reason, they provide users with many opportunities to interact with and present themselves to others. Thus, it is likely that the affordances of certain platforms would actually contribute to the presentation of a relatable, passionate, trustworthy, and down-to-earth influencer who maintains ties with his or her community. For the purpose of exploring this assumption, the authenticity of one specific influencer will be analyzed, namely that of Ghislaine Handiri.
Backstage with Ghislaine Handiri
Ghislaine Handiri is a content creator who posts content on multiple platforms, but she is mostly active on Instagram with a follower base of 66.000 followers. She has already been active for five years on Instagram and posts on a daily basis on this platform. Ghislaine has many paid collaborations with brands on Instagram: sometimes these are collaborations with local brands and shops, and other times she collaborates with popular and well-known international brands. Besides these professional collaborations, Ghislaine often posts visual materials of parts of her daily life, such as lunch with friends and long working days, on her Instagram Stories.
Furthermore, she shares less flawless aspects of her life, including selfies without makeup and the moment she went to the doctor’s office for a COVID-19 test. As Erving Goffman (1956) would put it, Ghislaine gives her followers access to the “backstage”, the relaxed environment “where the performance of a routine is prepared” (Goffman, 1956, p. 152). This kind of content gives followers the impression that Ghislaine is also just an ordinary and down-to-earth girl, who has her own responsibilities and does not wake up flawlessly. This is the kind of image that her followers can relate to and share similarities with. The comments and feedback of followers have probably shown Ghislaine that they appreciate this kind of content. Consequently, the possibility exists that Ghislaine decided to keep revealing these personal parts in order to improve her online status on Instagram. In this case, her authenticity would be strategic.
Ghislaine gives her followers access to the “backstage”, the relaxed environment “where the performance of a routine is prepared”
On the other hand, Ghislaine has her own small, but successful enterprise in the business of Moroccan dresses, called “Love & Harmony Dresses”, which she rarely promotes on Instagram. The success of her offline business and the lack of promotion for her business could also imply that Instagram is more of a hobby to her, that she is really passionate about it, and that she comes across as doing it for the right reasons (García-Rapp & Roca-Cuberes, 2017). Another factor that adds to her authenticity according to García-Rapp and Roca-Cuberes (2017), is that Ghislaine gives her honest opinions about products and services. Multiple times, Ghislaine has mentioned the downsides of products, even when these collaborations were paid. Consequently, her followers express their appreciation for her honest opinions and increasingly ask her for opinions about products, best practices, and hotspots.
Moreover, Ghislaine often calls herself “Gigi” on Instagram, which is her nickname. This makes Ghislaine more approachable and ordinary, which is also an aspect that contributes to her authenticity as reported by García-Rapp and Roca-Cuberes (2017). In addition, Ghislaine frequently thanks her followers for their long-lasting support, and expresses that her popular status on Instagram would be impossible without them. This contributes as proof of her down-to-earth and humble character.
Affordances of Instagram
In understanding how Ghislaine presents herself as authentic on Instagram, it is crucial to realize how Instagram as a mediator influences this authentic self-presentation. Inspired by the actor-network theory, it could be argued that one part of her authentic self-presentation is her own contribution, and the other part is being contributed by non-human actors, namely the defaults and the interfaces of Instagram (van Dijck, 2013a). After having followed and analyzed Ghislaine's Instagram account, it can be stated that Instagram Stories have a crucial influence on her authentic self-presentation. This influencer uses Instagram Stories and the Instagram Feed for separate purposes. High-quality visual materials and the majority of her collaborations are being posted in her Instagram feed. In contrast, Ghislaine makes use of Instagram Stories for the following diversity of purposes: to connect with her audience; to share more personal parts of her life; to show content from behind the scenes which were not fancy enough to post in her regular Feed; and to ask followers to support her by liking and commenting on her latest post.
Ghislaine regularly organizes Q&As on her Instagram Stories in order to give her followers the opportunity to ask fashion-related questions, but also more personal questions. Next to fashion, followers mostly seem interested in her own business, her goals in life, and the individuals that inspire Ghislaine, but followers also use these Q&As to express that they look up to Ghislaine and that she is their aspiration in life. Followers also mention in these Q&As that compared to other influencers, Ghislaine is such an ordinary, honest, and humble girl. Next to this, Ghislaine makes use of Q&As and sometimes polls in order to find out what kind of content her followers would like to see. Similarly, Instagram Stories routinely serve as a call for support: Ghislaine uses this feature of Instagram to ask her followers to like and comment on her last post, which is also a form of maintaining community ties. These examples illustrate that Instagram Stories offer Ghislaine diverse possibilities to interact with her followers and maintain community ties, which contributes to her authenticity (García-Rapp & Roca-Cuberes, 2017). In other words, the platform influences the way in which she communicates with her followers and consequently comes across as authentic.
Instagram Stories offer Ghislaine diverse possibilities to interact with her followers and maintain community ties
Additionally, Ghislaine employs Instagram Stories to share pictures and videos that she does not post in her regular Instagram Feed. A lunch with friends and a family day usually get documented on her Instagram Stories. This provides followers with the image that Ghislaine, just like them, is an ordinary girl. By sharing footage from behind the scenes of photoshoots and pictures whose quality was not high enough to post in the Instagram Feed, Ghislaine shows that her life is not perfect. Furthermore, Ghislaine adopts Instagram Stories to share tips and tricks with regard to beauty products, fashion, and food. She frequently emphasizes the unsponsored nature of these tips. Ghislaine does not earn money for sharing these tips, which proves that she shares these out of honest and altruistic care for her followers. This shows that Ghislaine herself is a user of products, next to being a promotor of products (García-Rapp & Roca-Cuberes, 2017, np). Just like García-Rapp and Roca-Cuberes (2017, np) described that YouTube rewards users’ visibility, Instagram rewards users with at least 10.000 followers by providing them with the opportunity to include links in their Stories, which Ghislaine also utilizes for her tips.
Without certain affordances of Instagram, the self-presentation, the self-expression and the interactions with the audience of influencer Ghislaine Handiri would be different and perhaps come across as less authentic. Instagram Stories offer this influencer many opportunities, including connecting with followers and presenting footage that shows that her life is not perfect. Of course, Instagram is a rather visual platform, meaning that the platform mainly consists of visual materials. A commonly held belief is that visual footage presents the truth, and when we see something, we can believe that it is true or that it has happened. Because Ghislaine documents large parts of her life on Instagram, it is easily thought that followers know much about her and her personal life. Nonetheless, this is too easy to assume. The first reason for this is that Ghislaine herself chooses what she documents and shares on Instagram and what not. The posts on Instagram will never constitute her entire life. The second reason is that the angle from which she documents her life is also a choice. Ghislaine herself often mentions that she gives her followers much insight into her personal life, but that some aspects remain hidden from them because they are too personal and intimate.
Concluding, as authentic as Ghislaine might seem on Instagram, some aspects of her personal life will remain a mystery to her followers, but followers express their understanding of this. Still, this does not mean that her self-presentation on social media is less real or even fake: it implies that her self-presentation on social media is edited (Marwick, 2013). Followers regularly express their appreciation for her honest, humble, and down-to-earth character, especially in comparison with other influencers. This shows that followers perceive Ghislaine as authentic and that her authenticity is crucial for her popularity on Instagram.
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