In a passage from “The Semiotics of Tourism,” Jonathan Culler lays out the central paradox of authenticity (the passage was in fact the headnote to literary critic Julia Straub’s introduction to an essay collection called Paradoxes of Authenticity): for something “to be experienced as authentic it must be marked as authentic, but when it is marked as authentic it is mediated, a sign of itself, and hence lacks the authenticity of what is truly unspoiled, untouched by mediating cultural codes.”
Authenticity must be and can't be mediated; it exists only as signified, but supposedly indicates a position beyond signification, where things present themselves directly as they “really” are without pretence, strategy, or the need for interpretation. This contradiction makes “authenticity” the sign not of itself, but of the particular longing for this kind of spontaneous truth; truth as a matter of something “feeling right” rather than being a deliberate production of knowledge from a particular standpoint. Its impossibility makes it an ideal commodity; people are willing to buy it over and over again because they never actually quite get it.
But why do we want it in the first place? In some respects we can’t but be authentic to ourselves; we are inescapably and interminably wallowing in our own sincere interiority. Yet as much as we can see through ourselves perfectly, we often prefer to imagine there is a “real self” that eludes our grasp, that is unrepresentable, even to ourselves in thought. This self purportedly harbors our better aspirations and unlocked talents; it represents who we would be if the world would cease to interfere. If we actually became that “authentic self,” we would be too busy being fully ourselves to reflect on the satisfaction of it. We can only enjoy the idea of ourselves as authentic vicariously, by identifying with the people and products that seem to embody it. The only way to feel fully real is to pretend you are someone else.
What then does “being authentic” offer as a commodified experience? Why are we so quick to feel phony without it? It has come to function as a replacement for the supposedly lost ability to comfortably inhabit ourselves, which gives every token of authenticity the slightly stale flavor of nostalgia.
Authenticity has typically been defined in opposition to calculation, as the absence of strategic self-presentation; your “authentic” self was held to be who you are without really trying, with nothing distorting the outer expression of your true and unique inner being. From this point of view, deliberate efforts to impress, accommodate, or please others are fundamentally inauthentic, hiding the true self behind a polite mask of obsequiousness.
As historian Eric Oberle writes in Theodor Adorno and the Century of Negative Identity, the pursuit of authentic identity has taken on emancipatory overtones. “In its ideal self-conception, to have an identity means to be awakened to who one is, and this awakening shapes subsequent questions of what one must do and of how one sees and knows the world … To become aware of one’s identity is to become aware of the power of self-making, and this awareness divides the world into those who are authentic — who embrace their own identity — and those who seek or accept conformity.”
This ideology of the inner “true self” that must be discovered or actualized has had many avenues: Christian notions of the soul and personal salvation, aristocratic ideals of effortless grace and Renaissance-era sprezzatura, Freudian depth psychology, existentialism. There is a long tradition of associating the desire for authenticity with the dislocations of modernity, which produce the possibilities of anonymity, social mobility, and interpersonal fraud. Identity was disembedded from its traditional determinants and became a matter of becoming. The opportunity was unevenly distributed, but some could meaningfully become something other than what the circumstances of their birth dictated. This meant it became newly possible to fail to be yourself.
In an overview of philosopher Bernard Williams’s work, Danial Callcut describes how “the ideal of authenticity can make doing what you think you ought to do, rather than what you want to do, look like a vice (hypocrisy, being fake, not keeping it real) rather than a virtue (traditionally known as continence).” As Callcut notes, Williams grounded his ideal of authenticity in “desire-based individualism,” but desires are easy to manipulate and install externally, and are no guarantee of selfhood. Nothing is easier than instilling people with desires; the massive advertising industry and the orientation of society toward opportunities for manufacturing desires testifies to that. There is no refuge for the “true self” in one’s “deep desires.”
It may make more sense to distrust desire altogether and regard it as the least individualistic aspect of oneself, an index of how easily one can be controlled by outside forces and common species urges. Effort and not desire would then be the basis of the self.
Nevertheless, the driving force for the idea of authenticity since the late 20th century has been consumer culture, which touted shopping as a means of agency and self-expression. It stressed the sovereignty of the individual consumer and suppressed the social components and contexts for identity. Your choices are all that matter in who you are, the discourse of consumer culture insisted, and consumerism offers you choice after choice.
The main channel for this discourse is advertising, which works not only to sell particular products but the implicit logic behind ads themselves: that products were fundamental to expressing personal identity. The right goods could confirm or reveal what you wanted to believe was the inner truth about yourself. Shopping was less about satisfying concrete desires than a more open-ended project of self-discovery and self-expression — the existentialist quest made more accessible. This idea posited “authenticity” as something discovered through consumerism, as its reward; it already existed within us but also needed to be pursued and confirmed. This meant shopping became a special region of practice where one was tacitly permitted to pursue the paradox: one could try to be authentic.
To that end, “authenticity” began to be understood as a quality that one could annex to oneself through particular goods — typically ones that evoke nostalgia for antiquated manufacturing or branding methods, that have a kind of life story that can mirror in miniature the buyer’s own, or that indicate some kind of subcultural belonging or a knowledge of trends at various moments in their life cycle. Authenticity became an ascendant marketing term, along with its close cousin, “aspirational.” Both of these trends coalesced in the rise of reality TV, whose contrived “realness” was frequently joined with open invitations to both envy and scorn the often decadent and indulgent subjects of such shows. Reality TV in turn became one of the templates for social media — a place in which lateral surveillance reigned and the constant performance of the self was demanded, rewarded, and monetized.
But consumer culture, mass mediation, and mass production expanded the potential for both individuation and conformity, exacerbating the tension between them. Authenticity expresses itself in degrees of conformity rather than in a full (and impossible, given the nature of social existence) repudiation of it. Being authentic in this context meant finding a way to appear unique through a singular concatenation of widely reproduced goods. In practice, this meant being on the right side of the fashion curve, adopting styles before that had fully coalesced into signifiers of fashionability. If one succeeds, the “authenticity” they feel and project protects them from emptiness of a self conceived along those lines. Owen Hatherley, in his book about the band Pulp, makes note of the “carefully chosen signifiers of individuality which end up as signifiers of conservatism and conformism, of status and success … the worthless trinkets that proved just how easily we were bought.” Authenticity serves a compensation for that inevitable surrender, for the alienation incumbent on surviving a capitalist society, for personal mediocrity one must feel in comparison to the lives mediated everywhere around us in advertising and experienced as more ubiquitous and significant and thus more real than we ourselves could ever be.
The regime of neoliberalism — which as Michel Feher has argued, requires us to take an entrepreneurial and tactical approach to developing ourselves as human capital — has further compromised authenticity, making it something directly marketable in social media as an aspect of “influence.” Authenticity is always already alienated, conceived positionally as a matter of market strategy rather than discovered as some kind of inner truth about the self. Any potential process of self-discovery along those lines is pre-empted by the constant demand to express oneself serially in the captured commercial spaces of platforms like Instagram. The self is attenuated in response to always available attention metrics and emerges from ongoing encounters with a variety of audiences and algorithms.
Last year, Facebook, wary of facilitating more election-tampering scandals, announced that it had taken down 32 pages and fake accounts from its platforms that the company says were engaged in “coordinated inauthentic behavior.” The joke practically wrote itself: What is Facebook in general if not “coordinated inauthentic behavior”? The posts and likes and algorithms harmonize everyone’s frantic efforts to get each other’s attention.
But that joke is actually too easy and buys into the company’s own rhetoric about how seriously it takes promoting “meaningful interaction” and among users who are expected to post under their “real names.” Part of Facebook’s pitch is that its sites facilitate “authentic expression” that lead to “genuine” experiences of connection and self-definition. Its pitch to advertisers revolves around a related notion of authenticity, that its users are nonrobots who provide trustable data about their connections, preferences, capabilities, and vulnerabilities. The platform accordingly polices what it deems to be “inauthenticity” — that is, not of value as targeting data — and purges users for this perceived offense.
Using social media allows us to contemplate ourselves and our relationships and try to reshape them in real time by sharing images and thoughts and links, and ritualistically exchanging tokens of approval. It’s a space where we can apparently take a hands-on approach to shaping our social being — as a process rather than a static, given thing — and receive a constantly updating scorecard on how well we are doing.
The pursuit of authenticity is less a kind of capital accumulation than an unstable form of investment in the self, forever susceptible to write-downs and sell-offs as fashion cycles revolve. A longstanding hedge is to disavow strategic self-presentation in a favor of a “I woke up like this” aesthetic, a tactic that featured prominently in 1990s antifashion and can now be seen unfolding again, according to an Atlantic article from this April, on Instagram. A 15-year-old user tells the reporter, “It’s not cool anymore to be manufactured,” as though there were any way to avoid it. It presumably helps to be young.
The article fecklessly proclaims the “end of the Instagram aesthetic,” but of course that means the replacement of one aesthetic with another, to maintain the differentiation between “influencers” and their followers. Like fashion, authenticity (another word for the same thing) can never be static, even as it tries to draw its value by evoking an idea of style that transcends trends.
To use a social media platform is to be immersed in the apparent paradox of people strenuously trying to be themselves, to perform authenticity. Its regimented, moderated space elaborates ideals that the shopping mall once embodied: commercialism as a proxy for significance and a promise of safety. But social media is not a space we enter and exit, but an overlay on our lives, a constant presence that reshapes our sense of opportunity and vulnerability. It offers a continual series of chances for social recognition, at being legible to others and approved by them, included, affirmed as interesting or likeable. Though it was once characterized as a kind of “microcelebrity,” the capacity to represent oneself in such a way that secures attention and likes has become a prominent way of feeling not famous but normal. This has intensified the pressure to perform sociality in the monitored and measurable space of social media, but to seem as though one is not performing at all.
The change that began with lifestyle consumerism has been consolidated in social media: an orientation toward validation through the same protocols that validate advertisements and products. The way “authenticity” had been used in branding now characterizes the process of personal branding through various platforms. Their measurements derive from the advertising industry but are easily repurposed to the project of social evaluation. No definition of “authenticity” is authentic; they are all tactical.
Social media platforms have becomes laboratories for authenticity: how to signify it, how to produce it, how to measure it, how to commodify it. They draw from the logic of fashion and extend it, becoming a more powerful administrative mechanism for the orderly unfolding and distribution of trends. As new kinds of authenticity ossify into viral memes and recognizable trends, other forms begin to percolate to take their place. But rather than be limited to clothes or tastes in music, social media extend the effect of trends across more of everyday life, and make the stakes a matter of the one’s entire identity.
To my dismay, I have sometimes found myself using the metrics in social media as a proxy for recognition or relevance or inclusion. How well I can reshape myself to get attention sometimes feels like the only relevant reason for communicating at all, a measure of how flexible and conformist I am at the same time. Conversations outside of monitored spaces feels less private than provisional, a rehearsal for communication that actually matters, that will actually contribute to how I am seen and measured. At times, the responsibility of performing "my real self" begins to feel overwhelming, and counter fantasies begin to develop: not only nostalgia for earlier, less media-saturated times when performing the self didn’t seem as pressing, but also dreams of discarding identity, offloading responsibility for it, promulgating multiple selves, consuming my self as its reflected back to me algorithmically as a product.
Too many discussions of authenticity obfuscate the deliberate slipperiness of the term and reinforce its hold over our imagination. But its centrality to consumerism and social media make it critical that we understand it as a façade, disguising a plurality of often conflicting ideas of how we should live and associate with one another. “Coordinated inauthentic behavior” now serves as a bureaucratic euphemism for politically motivated media manipulation, but it could be understood as shorthand for how everyone’s behavior is always already inauthentic, always conditioned and “coordinated” by social structures. And in that coordination is a hope for a kind of social recognition that is based on the ways we would like to be regarded, which would no longer serve as grounds for exclusion.