The importance of being authentic on social media

Authenticity online

Facebook built its brand on the premise of esse quam videri (to be, not to seem to be).  In contrast to social media predecessor MySpace, which allowed multiple accounts and digital noms de plume, Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook enforced a single-identity, real-name policy more reflective of a real, offline self. In doing so, it implicitly defined modern-day authenticity, condoning commentary of the banal minutiae of normal people’s lives after a decade or more of celebrity infatuation.

It seemed that we were over ideals and wanted to keep it real (or at least as real as we could without compromising our friend count). Which is where the ‘real’ thing comes undone. Rather than depicting our lives, these selective representations were still treated as ‘projects’ according to social media expert Dr Natasha Richardson from Murdoch University.

“We have this moral tradition that goes back decades of presenting an ideal self as our public face, so it’s not surprising that these kinds of trends get translated into a social media form and start to infiltrate all of the media productions that we do of ourselves,” says Dr Richardson.

Yet after a decade or so of Photoshopping, filters and omitting the less-flattering truths of who we are – Maldives, yes. Meltdown at the kids’ football match, no – there is a new version of the authenticity ideal coined by 18th century Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The rules for keeping it real have changed – and it’s not limited to Facebook.

The hallmark of the social media trend known in market research circles as faux-thenticity and pseudo-authenticity has been deemed ‘engineered amateurism’, which means posting blurry photos and purported ‘candid’ moments. It’s the Internet equivalent of bed hair that took half an hour to style.

“…there is that alienation or presentation anxiety where you actually relate more to the presentation of the self and the performance of it than you do to your real self in your life.”

On the surface, it seems like a positive trajectory towards allowing us to celebrate who we are offline, on. Yet some experts warn that while this surreptitious insincerity may make us appear authentic, it threatens to perpetuate a divide between who we are online and off while adding extra confusion. Researchers have identified congruence between a user’s social media presence and their ‘real world’, offline-self among three types of perceived authenticity online. Those who stray too far from their offline-self in online profiles are seen to be inauthentic, as are those whose presentation across platforms is inconsistent. Yet rather than engendering congruence between the two ‘selves’ – congruence is cited by humanistic psychologists as the key criterion for a healthy identity – the effect may in fact mimic the fragmentation native to disorders of the self as we pursue the illusion or realness with the same parochial fervour as we once did, the illusion of perfection. The unstable identity symptomatic of personality disorders may become the rule rather than the exception as we wonder whether we’re Arthur or Martha.

According to sociologist and cultural critic Bernie Hogan, the contemporary profiled self is necessarily a performance and an exhibition—’an ongoing interactive achievement and a display of selfhood constructed through a curated bricolage of identity artefacts’. It cannot exist without other social media members, who become co-creators of our digital identities by liking and commenting on posts, effectively giving feedback that serves to reinforce or punish online self-presentation and likely steers its direction.


Tactics used by social media marketers to cultivate perceptions of authenticity for both brands and personalities (so-called ‘social media influencers’) epitomise mimesis and are quickly normalised, making it hard to differentiate between intrinsic motivation and a contagion effect or follower syndrome affectionately known as ‘sheeple’. This is made more confounding by the fact that the authenticity ideal relies on appearing entirely normal.

  In her MySpace ethnography, examining usage practices and motivations, Jenny Davis found that subjects sought to maintain an ‘impression of spontaneity’ and conceal forward planning to portray ‘a self that appears to simply be, rather than a self that is accomplished’. Lending weight to the argument for concealing the time you spent wandering around the house looking for the best spot to take a ‘spontaneous selfie’ is a study that found that posts that seem self-conscious or deliberately targeted to an audience are more likely to be deemed inauthentic. Another type of faux-thenticity is known as ‘curated intimacy’, in which a user shares carefully selected personal details to cultivate a sense of authenticity. An extension of this is the practice of punctuating feeds with children and pets according to a University of Pennsylvania study. Naturally you’d put the kid in a clean Seed outfit first.

It’s possible to argue both for the paradoxical realness of pseudo authenticity as much as it is for the impossibility of an authentic online self. Authenticity on social media may be the modern-day equivalent of Einstein’s ‘optical delusions of consciousness’, which described the mistake of imagining oneself as separate from the whole of humanity. Richardson warns that current social media norms can drive a wedge between online and offline selves and undermine your sense of who you are in real life.

“When you spend so much time working on your self-image as a project in this online environment, there is that alienation or presentation anxiety where you actually relate more to the presentation of the self and the performance of it than you do to your real self in your life and the communication you have there,” she says.

According to Talent Economy’s Frank Kalman, a personal branding expert, the key to successfully integrating online and offline selves in a way that feels authentic is repositioning your focus. Rather than treating your online self as an entity or a project, dedicate time to cultivating your sense of self offline and letting it flow through to your online life.

“It’s important to remember that building a personal brand isn’t just about social media; it’s not about the cleverness of your tweets or the quantity of the blogs or content you create,” Kalman says. “Personal branding is about authenticity; it’s about you being you, not going out of your way to convey an image of what you think people want to see and hear.

“Before jumping into the personal branding world on social media, establish an authentic set of values and behaviours in real, everyday life among the people you are in contact with inside and outside of work,” he says.

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