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06/08/2020 The Communication Science magazine

A Critique of Online Vulnerability

Being authentic on Instagram is also a business. We take a look at influencers who are vulnerable online.


Instagram has always been associated with the curation of one’s image, both metaphorical and literal. Whether it’s arranging a tableau of picturesque food for your Instagram story or dressing up for the ‘gram, we’ve all been there. However, a new subsection of the app has been growing and quickly rising in prominence: ‘authentic’ influencers. They’re not just aspiring to abandon the classic Instagram look, they’re trying to foster vulnerability and meaningfulness in online spaces. While this seems like a good thing superficially, what does it mean to be authentic on social media? Could one ever be authentic on Instagram?

Maybe you’ve seen them yourself; they’re impossible to avoid these days. A post featuring a truism on a random backdrop, on a sign, on a screen, even. They’re reminiscent of neo-conceptual artist Jenny Holzer’s early works, with an abundance of aphorisms such as “Your idea of me isn’t my responsibility to live up to” or “Don’t mistake attachment for connection”. Most sayings focus on themes of connection, self-love, or empowerment. Most of the people I know, including me, have even shared one or two of these pictures. Some people I’ve talked to described it as an indulgence, a hint towards the vulnerability they’d like to exhibit on Instagram. 

Being vulnerable on social channels have been increasingly popular these days. A finsta (a portmanteau of fake and Instagram), for example, is usually a second account meant for less curated and more candid posting for a specific audience. Instagram has also released the Close Friends feature, where one can choose to whom they could show their Instagram posts or Stories to. In an online space where transparency and openness is increasingly encouraged, there are multitudes of ways to share your life to others. 

Friends-for-hire
Some of these influencers even go above and beyond by offering personal commentary and even advice for their followers on sites such as Patreon. One of them, Gabi Abrao (known as @sighswoon on Instagram), has a Patreon where one could pay, in increasing amounts, to be on her Close Friends list, to receive weekly recaps, private inboxes for better access, and even a weekly email session for advice. 

One could argue that influencers, for a price, could be your professional friend-for-hire. This trend isn’t new, though. An entire rent-a-family industry in Japan is flourishing; people could rent romantic partners or even family members to keep up appearances or to simply receive companionship. But when one’s entire online platform relies on vulnerability and authenticity, it speaks volumes that the same persona is also monetized for business. In a way, it seems almost cruel to promise people who don’t even know you that they have a personal connection with you.

The laid-back, chill atmosphere offers an illusion of intimacy that makes a viewer feel included and special

This isn’t limited to Instagram itself; many YouTubers have built their brand on seemingly authentic versions of themselves. “Storytime” vlogs are common; the YouTuber in question would recall a story they experienced in a conversational way, as if they were the friend you’re meeting for coffee. The laid-back, chill atmosphere offers an illusion of intimacy that makes a viewer feel included and special. Unlike the earlier wave of YouTubers like Zoella or Michelle Phan, these YouTubers don’t need to invest in marketable skills or have considerable amounts of relevant resources. Much of their charm lies in their charisma and who they are as people. This common core unites both vlogger and viewer; how else can you explain Tana Paul’s (née Mongeau) 5 million and counting subscribers?

Meant for consumption?
Let’s go back to the root of the problem. How is it possible that one could be authentic on social media? We’re all putting on an act, whether we like it or not. Every thought that goes into those posts are probably thoroughly developed; new ideas would be vetted and it must be ensured that the content aligns with the goal and vision of the account. That already requires some extensive planning that betrays the professedly effortless platitudes you see on the accounts.

Feelings and emotions are just concepts that could be commodified for easy consumption

Combine this with the fact that these influencers are monetizing their content by selling merchandise. We’re Not Really Strangers, for example, is selling their card game for $24.99 (excluding tax and shipping) next to tees and hoodies. The Female Warhol, on the other hand, is selling a limited edition print for $150. One could argue that they deserve to profit off their own work. But this completely upends the suspension of disbelief that comes with their content. The illusion of intimacy, of course, is gone. Feelings and emotions are just concepts that could be commodified for easy consumption.

Much of this content will never replace having actual conversations about how we feel and perceive. But it’s easier to be seen this way: even while we’re communicating (honest) thoughts about who we are and what we think about, we’re still presenting that through a lens we want others to see us as. The posts, as honest as they are, are still packaged in a way that appeals aesthetically and personally to a lot of people. They don’t reveal the hard and often ugly work of making connections and growing in this world. They’re still meant for consumption first and foremost; self-introspection is purely optional. 

A lot has changed since Instagram debuted in 2010. It’s not a surprise that people are looking for better ways to connect through social media. However, it’s time that we address the elephant in the room: as much as we try not to, we still filter most of the things we share with our followers. And as much as we hate to admit it, it’s still something worth acknowledging. Admitting that this doesn’t reflect real life isn’t counterproductive, it’s the first step to being authentic.

Cover: Prateek Katyal

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