The Authenticity Myth
As convergence between our offline lives and our activities online increases, the subject of authenticity arises more frequently. Identifying details such as our offline legal names, date of birth, gender, ethnicity, occupation or marital status are seen as signifiers of the authentic self. Such details are useful to businesses wishing to communicate with their target markets more effectively, and this has contributed to the reason for both mandatory and encouraged ‘authentic’ PII to be used when signing up for online services and creating online profiles.
In addition to corporate demand for PII, the lack of so-called authenticity in online social spaces is periodically criticised by the community at large. For example after the suicide of Charlotte Dawson in 2012, there were calls for more authenticity in Twitter profiles in order to more easily identify cyber-bullies (News.com.au 2012). The use of language such as “fake profiles” to describe these bullies’ Twitter accounts, assumes the existence of a contrasting “real profile”. The profiles were after all created by real people, the fakeness therefore lying in either the possibility that they were set up for the sole purpose of cyberbullying, or because of the lack of PII. Here, the word “fake” reduces the severity of the crime, since how can fake accounts produce real harm? Anonymity can often protect the victim, but also at times the aggressor, however I will leave the discussion about the pros and cons of enforcing so-called “authenticity” in the name of online safety for another time.
Like identity itself, authenticity is dependent on context (Marwick 2005a, p.10). Authenticity assumes a singular and linear state of being; that our identities offline are as much made up of 1s and 0s as our identities online, and that they are transferable as easily as making a carbon copy. However in reality, this isn’t the case.
Identity can refer to how we see ourselves, as well as how we would like others to see us (Marwick 2013, p.1), which means that it can never be described as a unitary, static thing. Just as it does in the offline world, a person’s identity online can exhibit a variety of characteristics, shaped by personal history and influenced by social and cultural groups. Identity can contain physical markers, such as ethnicity and sex, or can be chosen, such as a person’s political views (Ellison 2013, p.2). In the process of identity building, some choose to recreate their offline identities as accurately as possible, while others create what social media researcher Alice Marwick calls “authentic ironic” profiles. These identities are consciously sarcastic, satiric or ironic performances, in which the user might use “a funny picture of a celebrity as their default photograph, identify themselves with a pseudonym, or state that they are a hundred years old. However, the user is still ‘themselves’” (Marwick 2005b, p.19). Identities are often best showcased in social media, where they are built to communicate something about the self to a perceived audience. Whether a straight or selective self-representation is preferred, an ironic performance or one of multiple online identities is enacted, is entirely dependent on context and perceived audience (Ellison 2013, p.2).
Speaking to multiple audiences becomes a conundrum when trying to enact an “authentic” identity (Ellison 2013, p.4). In the case of creating a profile for an online dating site for example, identity might be crafted to appear seductive versus family-orientated, depending on what kind of mate the author is hoping to attract. The reality is the author might be both. The supposed authentic identity is just as much constructed within the context of its audience and environment as one which may be deemed inauthentic (Marwick 2005a, p.49). Authenticity is entirely dependent on what both the identity owner and its observer define it to be, and therefore is too burdened by bias and expectation to ever be truly “authentic”.
Regardless of how people represent themselves online, it is also important to consider that even in offline identity representations, authenticity cannot be guaranteed. As Nancy Baym wrote, “the flip side of our fear of online deception is our gullibility in believing that vision prevents us from falling for lies” (Baym 2010, p.120). Authenticity and inauthenticity are social constructs designed as markers in our minds to separate the real from the unreal.
Baym, Nancy K. 2010, Personal Connections in the Digital Age, Polity Press, Cambridge
‘Charlotte Dawson Titter attack sparks call for changes to laws against cyber bullying’, News.com.au, 30 August 2012, viewed 5 October 2014, <http://www.news.com.au/national/charlotte-dawson-twitter-attack-sparks-call-for-changes-to-laws-against-cyber-bullying/story-e6frfkp9-1226461706760>
Ellison, Nicole 2013, ‘DR3 Social Media and Identity’, as part of the report Future Identities: Changing identities in the UK – the next 10 years, commissioned by the Government Office for Science
Marwick, Alice 2005a, ‘Selling Your Self: Online Identity in the Age of a Commodified Internet’, Masters thesis, University of Washington
Marwick, Alice 2005b, ‘”I’m a Lot More Interesting than a Friendster Profile”: Identity Presentation, Authenticity and Power in Social Networking Services’, New York University, Department of Culture and Communication, Chicago, IL