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Why Does Authenticity So Often Feel Fake?
What gets labeled "authentic" is frequently a market-compatible reproduction of the original creative act. What gives?
In the early 2010s, a curious trend started to appear on YouTube channels large and small: the apology video. Thumbnails typically featured the YouTuber looking directly into the camera, cropped tight, skin slightly blotchy from crying. But by 2015, according to Know Your Meme, these videos were already being parodied for laughs.
Nine years ago, a YouTuber named Zoella posted a how-to hairstyle video to show viewers the art of the messy bun. That video has received more than 12 million views, and The Guardian credits it as being one of the original messy bun tutorials. Inspired by the kind of no-frills style one might use for yoga class, the messy bun hit the big time and became a multi-step process requiring multiple hair bands, bobby pins, and complicated twists.
In 2013, in the first season of Fixer Upper, Joanna Gaines introduced the world to "shiplap." But shiplap originated in the maritime industry. Then, the utilitarian construction technique made its way into the home as a base for wallpaper. One might find shiplap during a renovation and, like Gaines, decide it's nice enough to clean up and paint. Or, one might spend $300 for 20 sq. ft. of paneling at WoodPlank.com to get the same look.
The authentic act, documented and shared, quickly becomes a meme.
The apology video, the messy bun, the relentlessly quaint "farmhouse" style—they all started somewhere. It’s not so much that the authentic act becomes inauthentic, but that becomes planned and designed to signify authenticity. And that authenticity? It's good for business.
What was once singular, becomes mass-produced and "predictably unique."
"Predictably unique" is howdefines authenticity in his book, The City Authentic. Authenticity, or what's "predictably unique," describes how culture, place, and style are packaged to become recognizable—and, therefore, consumable—to a general audience.
And while Banks's interest is in the politics of urban planning, his analysis spoke to a question I've pondered for almost as long as I've been a Very Online Person:
Why does authenticity often feel so fake?
How can a form of expression feel legitimately authentic one day and discernibly contrived or derivative the next? Is it the expression or my perception of it that changes? Why does "authentic" become an aesthetic, a legible set of features that denotes the "real?" And why does formulaic authenticity convey such social capital (or at least promise to)?
I believe these questions can help us understand how we interact with work, the market, and the media. And, I also know that this is the kind of subject that I enjoy teasing apart philosophically and theoretically, but that can easily feel like an attack on readers' choices.
So just a brief disclaimer: this exploration isn't a critique of anyone's personal choices. Nor am I trying to change how you relate to the idea of "authenticity." I have no desire to become the authenticity police—that's dumb. Instead, I want to examine how the idea of authenticity is culturally created, reproduced, and absorbed into how we move through the world.
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We say we value authenticity.
And what that seems to mean is that we value the real. We imply the objective quality of authenticity—the sort that can be fact-checked.
But we're far more likely to be happy with something that's been designed to appeal to a subjective sense of authenticity. We need the right balance of "bespoke authenticity and market compatibility," according to Banks. It's that balance that he dubs "predictably unique." "Something is different enough that it can transport us," writes Banks, "offering an existential experience or fulfilling a previously constructed expectation, but it is not so alien that it gets rejected outright as too intimidating or simply a bad fit for the prevailing market conditions."
For example, uncovering shiplap under a few layers of wallpaper isn't exactly intimidating. But it is a bad fit for the market conditions. In one sense, there is an extremely limited number of homes that still have shiplap wall construction. In another sense, no one is suggesting we go back to making walls out of shiplap because it would significantly increase the cost of construction. So the best option is to create a consumer product that's market-ready and conveys the idea of shiplap.
"Market compatibility" is a filter we put ourselves through every day.
Yes, we want to "be ourselves," but we also want to fit in. We want to show off our unique interests and style, but we also want to show up in a way that's recognizable to others. I'd like to say that this is more a question of "social compatibility" than "market compatibility," that being enmeshed in a community culture naturally tempers our choices. But it's hard to say where the market stops and culture starts today. The market sells us the tools we use to create or signal culture, and so without consciously doing otherwise, we reproduce market compatibility through our daily choices.
I wrestle with this every day. My quote-unquote authentic self is illegible to most people who don't share a smattering of my identities. My authentic self is a bad fit for prevailing market conditions. And yes, I might even say that my authentic self is intimidating, or at least that's what I've been told. As I write about in my book, the impulse to sculpt a market-compatible version of myself is hard to ignore, and my attempts to do so resulted in multiple episodes of depression and burnout throughout my life.
The market-compatible version of me isn't a matter of packaging—she's not someone who wears the right clothes, does her hair the right way, and smiles just so in her selfies. I mean, it's partly that, but that's not the hard part. The transformation into a market-compatible version of myself is much deeper than that. I have to become—or appear to become—someone who can function in environments that others consider unremarkable.
The market-compatible me smiles through the "small talk" phase of a meeting. She can mingle at a conference. She could finally go back to the gym without fear of others asking where she's been for two-plus years. She could do her job and stop feeling the low-grade panic attack that simmers just below the surface whenever she has to address anyone's needs but her own. My market-compatible authentic self certainly wouldn't have a virtual Rolodex of proper social interactions that she flips through any time she's dealing with someone other than herself.
The predictably unique version of myself would be lovably introverted instead of aloof and prickly.
All of that is to say that "authenticity" is often anything but.
When we say "authentic" today, we're talking about a vibe, aren't we? And to paraphrase Banks, how do you put a price tag on a vibe?
Yet, we do put a price tag on vibes. Or, at the least, we understand that there is a certain vibe that stores value—influence, entertainment, aspiration, education, etc. The value of this vibe is evidenced by a set of choices made, intentionally or unintentionally, in response to the market. That could be the consumer market (as it often is), or it could be the market of public opinion, ideas, emotions, or social relations. The market supplies—for a price—a set of shared symbols and shared language we can use to register as ”authentic.”
This vibe—and the shared symbols and language that make it up—is what Adorno calls the "jargon of authenticity." The jargon of authenticity is full of "words that are sacred without sacred content." It's full of signs and symbols that are more like counterfeit handbags than luxury goods. The jargon and its vibe give the impression of deep meaning—and deep value—without actually supplying any.
Adorno points to how the jargon of authenticity picks up on the "mimetic element in language" to create certain effects. Those effects might give the impression that, for instance, you know me better or have more in common with me than you do. I see the jargon of authenticity in carefully crafted Twitter threads that purport to be all about “giving value” but are so obviously about taking it. I see it in LinkedIn posts that have that perfect hook floating above the “read more” link. I see it in planned spontaneity and hashtag vulnerability.
The jargon of authenticity and its vibe convey a particular level of realness that delicately balances likability with the occasional peek at the rougher edges. Authenticity is confident and self-assured, except when it's time to be humble, nervous, or frayed, like a stylish pair of brand-new distressed jeans.
Hashtags and tote bag slogans exemplify the mimetic elements of language and their effects. Hashtags create digital links between people and brands posting about the same things. Tote bag slogans create an ephemeral connection between passersby. Ultimately, the effects created by the jargon of authenticity resemble connection. Yet the connections forged by our shared language and symbols are whisper thin.
Showing up "authentically" can change us.
We try to create authentic personal brands—or at least, we're told that we should. One might assume that that means making the "brand" more like the "self." But in fact, the opposite is true. To make a personal brand more legibly authentic, it's the self that adapts. "By further collapsing the 'self' and 'brand' into the same aesthetic and rhetorical plane," writes Dr. Emily Hund in her book, The Influencer Industry, "influencers' level of authenticity supposedly became clearer to others, particularly the marketers whose work was to assess and sell it."
Hund's research shows that authenticity, something one might expect to be rich and variable, is flattened to a set of metrics recognizable to brands and agencies. Authenticity becomes another measurement to manage—and in doing so, provides incentives that result in a set of predictable choices. This finding among influencers echoes David Banks's finding that as cities strive to market themselves as authentic, that authenticity becomes calculated. "For authenticity peddling," he writes, "this often takes the form of corporatization and gentrification."
Honestly, I think gentrification might be a pretty great way to think of what happens to our online spaces and our selves in those spaces. Look around your digital neighborhood. Do you see people just living their lives and doing their work? Or do you see people reproducing the choices others have made to convey a certain message—the message, in this case, being "I'm worth paying attention to?" Our digital self-expression becomes a predictably unique reproduction—losing its aura but gaining a mass legibility that transforms it into a better consumer product or attention-getter.1
Remember that gentrification is not simply the loss of a neighborhood or city's connection to history and heritage.
It's not only a sea change in culture. Rather, it's an economic shift that makes it impossible for those with fewer resources to remain members of the community. Gentrification increases the wealth of the already wealthy—whether that wealth is financial, social, or attentional. And gentrification is always looking to expand.
For a city, that means one gentrified neighborhood turns into two, two turns into four, four turns into eight—until the whole city is shiny, new, and completely detached from the people who once called it home. No one can afford to live there except the wealthy and professional classes. The story goes from being one in which "hip" is defined as a connection to culture and community to a story in which "hip" is living someplace full of the amenities someone of means wants to live close to.2 And yes, you can interpret that with all the racial and class bias it seems to entail.
But what does gentrification mean for a personal brand?
As online spaces gentrify, how we represent ourselves in those spaces becomes flatter, less diverse. Even as we try to attract attention for ourselves on the basis of our unique contributions, our expression starts to look like everyone else's. The prevailing vibe becomes one that can only be maintained "professionally." That is, either you approach managing your online presence as if it's a full-time job (presumably with the hopes that it will become an actual full-time job). Or, you hire an agency or team member to manage that presence for you. I suppose a third option now is to entrust your digital representation to artificial intelligence.
The gentrified personal brand must respond and remake itself whenever there's a vibe shift. As the language and symbols of authenticity change, so must the language and symbols used by the personal brand. And this creates the wobbly, untethered feeling that so often accompanies trying to "keep up" with the online world.
I started this exploration with apology videos, messy buns, and shiplap for a reason—not only are they examples of how authentic expression is mechanically reproduced, but they are also examples of symbols that came and went as the vibe shifted. They're not gone, of course, but they don't hold the same cultural capital that they once did.
Can we reclaim authenticity beyond the market?
How might we understand authenticity differently—a quality neither dictated by the whims of capital nor as a fixed essence that only be discovered by pulling up the 1990s era carpeting?
Simone de Beauvoir and other existentialist philosophers attempt to provide an answer. For Beauvoir, "authenticity" isn't a natural state or essence of the self. It's not something that we can return to in a "pure" form or excavate from the many layers of the marketplace. It's not even our personal histories and prior choices. Instead, we make our authentic selves each day. We define what is authentic as we define ourselves as free people.
In her book, How to Be Authentic, Skye Cleary delves into Beauvoir's philosophy to connect it with our contemporary journeys of personal growth. Cleary writes:
Authenticity is a way of expressing our freedom: to realize and accept that we are free; to be lucid about what we can and can’t choose about ourselves, our situation, and others; and to use our freedom as a tool to shape ourselves.
Authenticity, from this perspective, isn't a marketing tool; it's not a way to attract attention. It is, instead, the only good-faith response to an internal gut check of our values and ethics, as well as the "awareness that we are enmeshed with each other's lives."
There's something about "predictably unique," commodified hashtag authenticity that feels detached, sort of out of touch with social reality. It's a performance directed at others rather than an invitation to connect. What's so often missing from our expressions of authenticity today is an acknowledgment of relationship. We work so hard at attracting attention that we end up cut off. Our speech is brimming with isolation. Our hit-and-run attempts at "building community" only serve to further alienate us and those we want to be in community with.
I'm not here to take away anyone's messy bun—god knows what I'd do without mine! What I am interested in, though, is exposing how our attempts to "be authentic" are the same things that make us feel alone and unheard, denizens of gentrified digital spaces.
What if instead of "getting real," we tried to "get together?" We could stop peddling the same advice, the same symbols of wisdom, and start inviting others in. Instead of attracting attention, we could reach out and make a connection.
My goal is to help you see beyond the hype and assumptions of contemporary work and culture so you can find what works for you. Become a free or paid subscriber today!
Workshop: Landing a Remarkable Interview
Date: Wednesday, July 12 at 12:30pm ET/9:30am PT (90 minutes)
Appearing on podcasts as a guest is a fabulous way to reach new audiences, connect with new colleagues, and even make sales. But how do you make it happen?
I’ll walk you through:
Researching which shows are right for you to pitch
Finding the angles that will make podcast hosts say "yes!"
Crafting a pitch that actually gets opened
Preparing for an interview
Giving your best interview, from great answers to expert microphone technique
We'll also discuss podcasting trends specifically as they relate to podcast pitching and what not to do when you're pitching yourself.
Registration Fee: $50
There is also an option to register for $25 if the regular fee is a stretch, or you can register at $75 to cover the cost of someone else’s ticket!
Here, I’m referencing Walter Benjamin’s classic essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” In it, Benjamin theorizes that an original work of art (broadly defined) has an “aura” that derives from its uniqueness or authenticity and the time and place in which it is created. Any reproduction of that art will necessarily lose the aura of the original—and change the value of the original in key ways. Get the 411 on Wikipedia.