News & Views

Opinion / Keeping it Real-ish

by Katrina Dodd

It isn’t easy being authentic. Last week, Essena O’Neill, a darling of Instagram with north of 500k followers, quit the platform in a 17-minute YouTube confession, a public spasm of guilt and misery in which she called out her own obsession with online fame and her slavish commitment to perpetuating a vision of her life (carefree, spontaneously beautiful and awesome) that felt far from the true picture.

The response to her meltdown has covered a spectrum from sympathy to mockery. Sympathisers see her move as a brave stance against the platform’s relentless celebration and elevation of filtered and edited perfection. Detractors have derided O’Neill’s apparent naivety and cast doubt on her motivation. They point out that while she’s called time on Instagram and her other social profiles, she’s also launched, a new platform which will benefit from the publicity generated by her moment of epiphany.

Whatever your response to this crisis of conscience, it highlights the increasingly tricky relationship that our social media stars, the brands that support them and the public at large have with the idea of authenticity.

A few weeks ago, Hazel Barkworth, cultural insight associate director at Added Value, wrote a guest post entitled Authenticity by Numbers, spotlighting how the design codes of honesty and integrity had been appropriated by retail chains as a shortcut to those beneficial associations.

The trouble with this kind of ‘fauxthenticity’ TM is that it actually kind of works. At least for a while. It’s easy to be lulled by the status quo until something – or someone – comes along that challenges it in a way that is harder to ignore than it is to engage with. Like the Emperor’s new clothes.

Right now that’s happening online courtesy of Essena O’Neill’s personal crisis, but we’ve seen a similar tipping point in UK politics lately with the surprise election of Jeremy Corbyn MP to Leader of the Labour Party. While Essena’s problem was a lack of authenticity, Corbyn has our attention because he is political authenticity incarnate – a concept so novel that his every move attracts squawking column-inches of commentary.

Picture via The Telegraph

This weekend’s heated debate surrounds the precise angle of his bow at the Cenotaph for Remembrance Sunday. Was it low enough to denote respect? Did he bow at all? Should he have worn a white poppy? Almost everything the man does is seen as challenging because the default in contemporary politics has been self-preservation through the kind of terrifying lack of distinction skewered so effectively in The Thick of It.

Because genuine authenticity seems to turn off as many people as it attracts. Integrity tends to be challenging, and that is as unsettling to some as it is inspiring to others. Credibility also takes time to accrue and make itself manifest, and more time again to build a following, or establish a degree of popularity that attracts the attention and envy of rivals.

Whether Essena O’Neill can or cannot successfully parlay the very popular public facade of her social success into ‘a more authentic way of expressing myself and what inspires me, in hopes to motivate you to express yourself in your own life’, she certainly has my attention. And whether or not Mr Corbyn, armed with a lifetime of political integrity and authentic socialist fervour, has the tenacity to win the votes of a nation (and not just his own party members), his efforts have already galvanised interest in UK politics from a 15-year flatline of general despair.

The point is that for brands looking to pique the interest of consumers in a meaningful way, fauxthenticity is not going to move the needle. If you don’t have the conviction, or the chutzpah or the deep and immediate foundational need to change things up, all the distressed wood and exposed brick simply isn’t worth the effort. But the willingness to step out of your comfort zone, and be ready to have your beliefs and your actions constantly questioned and scrutinised – not just by others but also by yourself – well, that’s the kind of jeopardy that people can actually get behind.