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Jeremy Scrivens writes about the importance of being authentic on social media. I get what he means, but the language is flawed.

From what I understand authenticity is tailor-made for our modern context, an affectation epitomized by a Coke commercial or a ripped pair of jeans. Similar to early modernist painters’ preoccupation with primitivism, authenticity is really about rich people acting poor and educated people acting unschooled. (Primitivism is to race what authenticity is to class.) An essential mechanism of our modern human condition, authenticity involves projecting our insecurities onto others and then superficially appropriating that power back in a way we can better control. It’s all bogus, hinging on the fallacy of essentialism. Authenticity is our modern mechanism for disguising our fear that we are hollow inside, that we are somehow inauthentic. Authenticity is a cultural machine for blackboxing our own sense of hollowness.

Photo by Stilfehler (2009) via Wikimedia

Socially, authenticity is also about how we build trust with each other. It’s the art of looking like a real person. I actually like Scrivens’ idea of Becoming Social workshops aimed at helping people build an identity for themselves on social media. I think I get what he is getting at, and it is a needed thing. For many of us, projecting ourselves into a virtual, social space does not feel at all natural or easy. Many of us could benefit from a bit of coaching. But I cringe at his focus on authenticity. In this world of faking it ‘til we make it, it feels as if we are all just projecting and coopting, coding our insecurities into social signs through which to negotiate status. It’s hollow.

But therein is the beautiful paradox. Culture is this dance of innovating and inventing new ways to be real. We project meaning into objects and through them we negotiate with each other about who we think we are. My main objection to framing this coaching around us trying to be authentic is that it feeds into the insecurity that is at the root of consumerism. I don’t care about your ripped jeans and your retro designs. Let’s break out from the ticky-tacky boxes that have been allotted to us by corporate social media. I’m not interested in home decorating tips to make these cells feel more authentic. I want to breathe and I want to feel your breath.

Jenna Abrams did a credible job of seeming authentic. I’m more interested in how Putin expresses himself on social media, and Trump, and Zuck. We need to be looking at the whole system. We need to invent ways of connecting in this world. Get online, sure, but don’t get in line. We need to coach people to break out. The world needs a new way of organizing, yes. But more than that we need a new way of constructing our identities. Authenticity is not the place to start.

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