The Cost of Authenticity on Instagram

Be true to yourself. Embrace the real you. Contrived marketing slogans or fundamental philosophical challenges? The answer, of course, is both, and 19-year-old Instagram model Essena O’Neill’s very public rejection of the inauthentic nature of social media last week has been read through both lenses.

On the one hand, O’Neill deleting her very successful Instagram, YouTube and Tumblr accounts, and re-directing her audience to her new blog decrying the constructedness of social media life, has been embraced as revealing the inner workings of a poorly understood social media marketplace. Deleting accounts with more half a million followers certainly makes a statement. On the other hand, O’Neill’s actions have also been interpreted as a rebranding effort, shifting away from the world of modelling toward a new online identity as a vegan eco-warrior.

O’Neill was — and largely remains — what is referred to as an influencer (by marketers) or a microcelebrity (by academics). With large numbers of followers come interest from brands and companies wanting to reach these ‘organic’ social media audiences. While these social media channels often depict idyllic lives, O’Neill’s refusal has added to questions about their authenticity. Or, more accurately, questions about exactly what sort of money is changing hands, and how visible sponsored and paid posts should be on Instagram and other social media.

Clashes between authenticity and commerce have a long history on social media. A notable example occurred in 2009 when Nestle courted influential ‘mommy bloggers’, effectively dividing the community between those happy to be flown to a Nestle retreat and those who argued Nestlé’s history of unethical business practices in relation to breastfeeding were unforgivable. More recently, influential YouTube star and fashion blogger Zoe ‘Zoella’ Sugg faced a backlash following the revelations that her best-selling debut novel Girl Online was written, at least in part, by a ghostwriter. However, Essena O’Neill’s dramatic and very public rejection of her influencer status has not only generated international headlines but has also put questions of transparency, advertising and authenticity on Instagram clearly in the spotlight.

Researcher Crystal Abidin has extensively studied and documented Singaporean influencers, noting a range of different practices, from explicit tags to implicit mentioning of brands, to indicate paid or sponsored posts. Recognising these various tags and indicators requires a level of Instagram literacy that regular viewers will likely develop, but casual audiences could easily miss. Indeed, as Abidin and Mart Ots have argued, this lack of transparent standards can be understood as ‘the influencer’s dilemma’.

As Singaporean influencers have been around in some fashion for a decade, some have aged sufficiently to shift from their own sponsored posts to endorsements featuring their children, becoming what Abidin describes as micro-microcelebrities. Australia, too, has its own infant influencers, the most visible being PR CEO Roxy Jacenko’s daughter, four year old Instagram star Pixie Curtis. As a second generation influencers emerge, clear social norms about sponsorship and advertising transparency on Instagram become more pressing.

Australian marketing company Tribe have positioned themselves as brokers between influencers and brands. For Tribe, an influencer is “someone with 5000+ real followers” on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. As they note, the ACCC do not currently require influencers to reveal paid posts: “In Australia you’re not required by law to disclose a sponsored post, but we strongly recommend you do. Simply add #spon for sponsored post, in your caption if you feel your audience can’t reasonably identify branded content.” The difference between a recommendation and a rule aside, while a quick search reveals some 47,000 Instagram images tagged with #spon, many of these are not sponsored posts.

Of the top #spon tagged posts on Instagram yesterday (9 November), they feature influencers spruiking tea, videogames, resorts, beer, and a mobile service provider along with two pets sponsored by a dog show and, as seems fitting, a dog food company. An explicit marker like #spon would at least make sponsored posts identifiable, but no such standard currently exists and even Tribe only ‘strongly recommend’ rather than mandating its use.

In a post ironically titled ‘How To Make $$$ on Social Media’, Essena O’Neill notes that she was charging $1000 to feature a product on her Instagram feed, a fact she did not disclose until her recent rejection of her social media modelling past. O’Neill’s own authenticity might not be helped by the fact that she took to Vimeo — another social media platform — and her own blog, to denounce social media. Alternatively, this could be read as a clear reminder that social media isn’t inherently morally charged: the value of communication platforms depends in large part on what’s being communicated. Moreover, as O’Neill’s actions have inspired other Instagram users and influencers to add ‘honest’ captions about the constructedness of their images, if nothing else O’Neill has provoked a very teachable moment, potentially increasing the media literacy of many social media users.

When modelling agencies start listing Instagram follower counts alongside the traditional head and torso portfolio shots, the difference between social media influence and traditional marketing is increasingly hard to delineate. Traditional media industries have long had regulations that ensure advertising and other content are clearly differentiated. While regulating social media with a global reach through policies is often challenging, calling for social media influencers to self-regulate insofar as they make sponsorship, advertising and paid placements visible should not be. Far from damaging their influence, such transparency may just add to what audiences perceive as their authenticity.