Influencing is Ideally Inauthentic
Authenticity is becoming an increasingly prized attribute for influencers. As influencers become more successful and partner with more brands, their sense of authenticity seems to plummet. Fan followings are fickle, so brands search for micro-influencers with less 100,000 followers, in the hopes that their personal pull on consumers will be stronger.
I was struck with disbelief by YouTuber Keaton Milburn’s video “THE REALITY OF BEING AN INSTAGRAM INFLUENCER | TIPS & TRICKS,” in which she straightforwardly describes the process behind her Instagram photos that felt so inauthentic to me. She and her friends, who are also influencers, bring a variety of outfits to a photoshoot session and change clothes between takes in to have a new outfit pic to post every day. She states that even though it is always warm where she lives in Arizona, during the fall she will post pictures of warmer clothing to match the seasons her viewers are experiencing. She and her friends joke about how they would not wear certain outfits “in real life,” but how they look good for the ‘Gram. I felt a strong tingling of the surreal: for a platform that craves authenticity, why would this YouTuber reveal the construction of her image so casually?
I am drawn to the Keaton Milburn channel because it allows me to find a cooler version of myself. Her channel allows me to peer into the life of another college-aged young woman in a sorority, but while I’m Asian and nerdy, she is white, (dyed) blonde, and skilled with makeup. Casually watching her routine videos as I did my routines allowed me to imagine for a while that I, too, fit in perfectly with the image of a collegiate “sorority girl” without every worrying about my identity. Her videos motivate me to apply makeup or get me excited for girls’ trips when I’m feeling down.
In studies on the psychology of videogame avatars, Dr. Jesse Fox of Ohio State University found that the avatars people create are idealized versions of themselves. Keaton is my virtual avatar: an excited young woman navigating college with tickets to Coachella but without crises, like myself but a little more certain. Looking at influencers allows us to forget the difficulties we go through and indulge in a life just outside of our reaches, but in order to do so, they must erase the painful parts and emphasize the good. Influencing is inherently inauthentic. It is a job in which a person must depict an idealized life, but whereas that niche had been filled by modeling and acting, influencing takes it to another level of emotional sanitization.
Influencers use a platform that was originally personal in order to sell an image or lifestyle. To cultivate the fantasy for everyone who is interested in that lifestyle, they must curate an extreme, idealized representation of that lifestyle. In the same way that fashion spreads depict scenes and models that correspond not to customers’ realities but to ideals like glamor and elegance, influencing is about creating an idealized space for fantasy to take place. Whereas high fashion makes its sales with exclusivity, influencers make sales based on inclusivity. The tension lies in maintaining that image at all times. Many vegan influencers are breaking down, unable to maintain the strong agendas they push. To become an ideal is a huge burden for a human being to bear, but influencers are supposed to live our ideal lifestyle, so every aspect of their online worlds must work for that image. The paradox of influencing is that its inherent inauthenticity, balanced correctly, sells what we crave. For me, Keaton’s admittance of the construction of her image pushed the boundaries of this tension to their breaking point.
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