What is the meaning of authenticity? And is it a realistic concept?
There are so many conversations right now about authenticity. It’s a hot topic when we live in a social media age of curated feeds and filters. Can we really be truly authentic? Or are we all just faking it?
Social media use is widespread, almost universally used (over half the world’s population is now online – source). Smartphones are, again, almost universal (almost two-thirds of the world’s inhabitants own a smartphone – ibid.). We are constantly connected. Constantly sharing.
And yet, mental health is suffering. Mental illnesses are on the rise (source), we are more stressed and ill than ever. Increasingly, younger people are becoming anxious and stressed. There’s a pressure that’s mounting.
It’s no longer just about FOMO. This is about feelings of inadequacies.
Now, our experiences are lived through a lens, through a filter. We ‘do it for the ‘gram’. Experiences aren’t for joy or learning, they’re for likes and comments.
It’s a job, it’s a career. It’s an extension of our lives. It IS our lives.
But have we ever really been authentic? Does authenticity even exist?
Before social media, our communication, communities, relationships may have been ‘in-person’, but does that make those more authentic? We say that with the filters and staging that virtual lives are inauthentic, but can we really say that our in-person relationships were authentic, were we always honest, raw and real?
Think about it, you don’t share every single raw, honest detail about your life in your in-person relationships. You put on a ‘face’, and you have different faces depending on who you are with. You have your social face, your work face, your family face, your romantic face.
Human interaction is all about filters. We behave differently with different people, in different situations. Does that make them any less real? Does that make them less authentic?
No, because human interaction and human beings are multi-faceted.
In fact, I don’t see our online personas as that separate to who we are. They are an extension of that. Just as we put on our best face for meeting friends at a dinner party, or going to a business networking event, we also put on our best face for social media.
Social media is real. I’m pretty sure me, a real-life human being, using social media is a real action. That is an authentic action.
Why are we criticising social media for being inauthentic? Why do we lament its inauthenticity when we don’t expect the same level of real-ness from the other social interactions in our lives?
The problem lies not with the medium as such, but more with the lag in the time, it is taking us, as a society, to catch up with the collective understanding of this new form of communication and connectivity.
We, as a society, need to recognise that social media only represents a small representation of who a person really is. We need to learn how to read between the lines. We need to accept that we are only seeing a curated, highlights reel. And that’s ok.
If you went to an event to meet new people, you wouldn’t expect to know everything and anything about them. You wouldn’t accuse them of misleading you about who they are by not revealing every little detail of their lives.
People don’t need to share everything about themselves online in order to be authentic.
We are deep, complex beings. We do not have the capacity to untangle that all in order to communicate it with other people online.
Connectivity rather than authenticity
The flip side of this complexity to our being is that we are trying to fathom how to live in a world of constant connectivity. And therein lies the problem, in my opinion … connectivity. I think that we are too connected, and we need a break.
It’s not the tool that’s the problem, it’s how we use it, how to understand it, how we harness it. At the early stage of social media, we are all jumping in fully clothed with no armbands. Some are learning to swim quickly, others are drowning. It’s overwhelming.
We need to figure out a healthy way to be connected.
I mean, think about, we’ve had thousands of years of human connectivity. These social structures we’ve created as living beings took time to hone and pass on to the next generation. Social relationships aren’t necessarily a natural instinct. There are social codes that take time to learn. We are taught them as we grow up, through trial and error, or guidance. Surely it follows that a whole new form of connecting with other human beings is going to fraught with issues as we figure out how to manage it best as a society?
I don’t think that sharing just your best bits online makes you less authentic than somebody who wants to share warts and all. Just as in ‘in-person’ encounters you will find some people more private and others big on the sharing, you get different people using this form of connectivity in a way that feels comfortable to them.
And that is my main point, authenticity is what YOU choose it to be. As an individual, you get to decide how you present yourself publicly. You get to decide how to manage your relationships both online and offline. You get to decide with authenticity means to you. You decide what it means to be authentic online.
Sure, some people might make mistakes. Some people might be misleading, unscrupulous or lie. But that is life. That is what we know and expect from some human beings, so don’t be surprised. There’s the good, the bad and all that in between. We need to learn how to read those social cues online as well as offline, because that is how the world is working right now.
The only person you can control is yourself. You cannot be responsible for the behaviour of others. But you can be responsible for how you react to them.
Be your authentic self, however that looks. And remember that somebody else’s idea of authenticity is probably a little different.
‘People don’t need to share everything about themselves online in order to be authentic.’