I went to a personal branding webinar today called “How I Earned $20K in 7 Days After Reinventing Myself Online.” No, no … you guys — I know how much that title screams clickbait, but some car crashes are just too fiery to turn away from.
As soon as I heard the sad origin story — every one of these struggle-porn entrepreneurs has one, and I do, too — I knew I was in the presence of unapologetic excellence. Here we go:
“It was so hard. I had to ask my boyfriend to financially support me as I re-tapped into my why. Then, I went to a breathwork training and had a major revelation. I knew I had to take bold action to start reinventing my brand. So, I booked a photoshoot that I felt better aligned with her current brand.
This Profile in Courage centered around a Facebook post that started with a — “I feel like I haven’t been fully honest with you … I’ve been misleading my audience … I haven’t been showing up as my fully authentic self” written in nearly pitch-perfect sales copy format, generating some 400-ish likes and 140+ comments. All told, the pivot netted the instructor a growth from “being a six-figure entrepreneur, to becoming a multi-six-figure entrepreneur.”
“People could tell something was wrong behind the scenes, so I showed up with transparency and vulnerability.”
Sweet Mother of VSCO… I can’t. In the words of New York Poet Laureate Shawn Carter, “don’t make me do it to you, cuz I’ll overdo it.”
“If I have to hear one more skinny white bitch say ‘you know … I always say ‘just be authentic’,” my partner said to me, “I’m going to cut someone.”
The genesis of this comment was not a latent stabby streak — but a day-long series of panels featuring a murderer’s row of “skinny white bitches” covering everything from personal branding to personal branding. They dispensed timeless advice ranging from the insidiously vapid: “Fuel what your soul is craving,” to the bewilderingly vague: “We have something for everybody while staying true to who we are.”
Undeniably, in a world filled with fake news, airbrushed models, perfectly poured matcha lattes and ads masquerading as hashtag-content, there’s a hunger out there for people starved of authenticity. And yet, these panelists — despite their calls to the contrary — are among those most gleefully and joyfully projecting falsehoods and half-truths into the abyss, as if the upper limits of authenticity scrape only as high as the basement ceilings of their brands, banging on it with a broom to be let out. “What’s that noise? Oh … haha! That’s authenticity. Don’t worry … she’s fine. She’ll come out when it’s time.”
The hashtag-authentic IG post is now a trope that’s almost as uniform as the rest of Instagram. It’s generally a black-and-white and/or no-makeup post, captioned with a certain kind of gravitas that cuts just deep enough to draw blood but not actually enough to hurt. If there’s a challenge facing someone, it’s named in only the most general or benign terms, or it’s such a first-world problem that it’s the kind of problem the common-folk could only dream of having … such as having your boyfriend financially support you while you “re-tap into your why.” [Don’t worry: he’s her fiancée now.]
Or, maybe it’s an admission of sorts — “it took me 120 photos to get this perfect shot” — that details the immense pressure of standing still and looking pretty, followed by the inevitable word parsing that must be done to craft the perfectly complimentary caption, usually sounding as though it was written by an over-caffeinated cheer captain — even on their darkest of days — followed by a “comment below if you agree.”
Before I continue, I must point out that skewering influencer “culture” will come across as somewhat gendered, and 95% of influencers I know personally are, in fact, womxn or non-binary. Even on the webinar, I was one of 3 participants out of 78 who identified as male.
Additionally, as a straight white cis-gendered American man, there’s obviously layers upon layers of privilege that I, personally, do not have to deal with as a “content creator” on the Internet.
So, the term “influencer,” no matter how gender-agnostic it may seem, becomes a bit charged when coming out of my mouth in particular. There are, of course, male “influencers” on Instagram — and they are part of the grating and obtuse internalized-capitalism-meets-elevated-consciousness monoculture.
They pose leaning against a Rolls Royce, in rented or gifted suits costing several thousand dollars, either captioned with no words at all — maybe something trite like “feeding the beast,” or something presumably profound and inspirational, like:
“It’s all beautiful. The challenges. The championships. The ups and downs. The pain and loss. The love and peace. Throughout this magical journey I’m so grateful for it all. It all gives me a powerful perspective and opens my mind to what is possible. If you are grateful for everything in your life as well leave a ❤️ below.”
The big-print word-cloud tropes of the “authenticity” movement are concepts like: “gratitude,” “mindfulness” and “self-love.” These are often dispensed as free ideas, but they’ve been mostly filtered and distilled beyond the point of attainability: gratitude, mindfulness and self-love ladder up to a sort of noveau-riche luxury brand where being your best self is the new conspicuous consumption: All sound baths, yoga retreats and digital detoxes; SoulCycle, green juice and sea turtle conservatories in Costa Rica — available to almost everyone, affordable to almost no one.
The shame we feel while eavesdropping on these super-positive super-humans no longer lies entirely in seeing, so closely, what we wish we had, but rather in coming face-to-face with who we wish we could be, if we weren’t so damn busy worrying about when the direct deposit will hit next or if there will be free and fair elections in America anymore.
“That’s the problem with culture today — no one can handle anything deep,” bemoans an influencer friend of mine who is also a disturbingly excellent long-form writer. “We live in a world where saying ‘omg guys I just loveeee this sweater’ is the best content ever created.”
She, of course, continues to feed the machine herself, with photos of her standing casually against a pastel wall, and with sales-y, faux-surprised captions as banal as she most assuredly isn’t. I needle her on this.
“It’s just the way mass society is now. I’d also like to cross examine and say actually a lot of these influencers now have business skills,” she continues. “They have to be able to manage deadlines, etc. it’s not just fun and games.”
And, it’s true, it’s no picnic to continuously push out engaging content, manage partnerships and schedule shoots. Influencing requires — at last count — hiring consultants, stylists, brand designers, copywriters, photographers and virtual assistants. It takes a village to make all villages look vaguely like a pastel Southern California.
It takes effort to mimic your own voice and contract out professional photography work for bulk shoots —influencing is rarely as “in the moment” as they often tell you to live — and most photos are, in fact, #latergrams, shot on the same day when the weather is perfect enough for several wardrobe changes, to optimize efficiencies. [I know this. I’ve done it, and you just can’t be a writer or consultant without a social presence, unless you really like browsing LinkedIn and cold-calling, which I assuredly don’t.]
Please Stop Pitching Yourselves to Strangers on the Internet
The art of the digital cold-call.
A former coworker of mine actually left her well-paying corporate job to work for her daughter, as her personal brand began to take off.
But is that really what we want, as people? Or is that just what we’re being fed by algorithms? A discussion with another friend and LinkedIn influencer, about influencing, yielded this response:
“I love the simplicity and lightness of their words. I love them because they were able to reach a higher level. They are so aware of their gifts and limits intellectually and also know that this is NOT what makes them drive real change. They only speak what’s in their heart and soul. They are so humble and never pretend to be brilliant, and that’s what makes them so likable and attractive.”
I’m not here to dismiss her opinion, although I am here to question if the authentic among us are truly speaking what’s in their heart and soul. What if — and hear me out here —authenticity is merely a narrative device in their “branding?”
Perhaps that’s cynicism masquerading as inquiry (which would be a fantastic tagline for my work).
There’s a cavalcade of local Austin micro-influencers (1K-20K followers) who parade around town, all posting vaguely the same things: pictures of meals, pictures of new hairstyles, pictures of outfits, pictures of days spent at pristine hotels, pictures of their favorite brightly-colored walls, pictures of their own meetups at local restaurants, all in new hairstyles and favorite outfits, all sharing secrets and laughs. I, too, am one of them, although I’m quite low on hair.
“I went to an Instagram meetup, and it just wasn’t my scene,” confesses yet another local IG personality, whose brand centers on authenticity and personal branding.
When I ask why, she continues, “I just don’t like the influencer culture here. These people are in it for the wrong reasons.” I ask what those reasons are, and she says, “They all just want free shit, particularly drinks, while I’m genuinely trying to help people.”
When I ask her if she thinks people in this culture are showing up as their authentic selves, she answers, with a laugh, “Absolutely not.” She later adds, “Although if they are, I’d argue that’s even more sad.”
Now, it isn’t just “influencing” that’s co-opted the word “authentic” and perverted it into an aesthetic. Authentic is motherfucking everywhere.
The Millennial generation — in which I nominally belong, but I’m more squarely in the “Xennial” camp , because I’m 38 and just old enough to be screaming at clouds — is obsessed with authenticity in all things: food, travel, art, brands, experiences, careers. And yet, that same “authenticity” is being weaponized and used against them by the very entities from which they seek it. It starts with the dreaded c-word: Curation.
Curators — once confined to the world of museums — are now, if not necessarily by name, then by job description, in every industry, at every company. They’re a sort of catch-all that substitute in for procurers, travel agents, DJs, experience designers and so on. It’s their literal job to ensure “authenticity” at every turn. Whether in the corporate world, or in art or social media (I know all three arenas all too well), we talk of people “curating” the right authentic “content” to “elevate their brand.” Authenticity is the product itself, which is to say it’s now hard to tell whether or not it exists at all.
In the event that authenticity does exist — say, at a popular “authentic” New York pizza joint, or at an “authentic” mid-century modern resort in Palm Desert — the word spreads so far and wide that the previously authentic entity becomes overloaded with consumers, collapsing the authenticity of the experience under the own weight of what was once billed as its competitive differentiator.
To use New Orleans as an example: first, tourists — importantly, most of them White folx — overran Bourbon Street, then Frenchman, then Treme. In this context, “Authenticity” is a moving target in much the same way we view “up-and-coming” neighborhoods. It’s the appropriation and gentrification of trends often started by communities of color and others along the margins.
The authenticity seekers come, they experience, they tell their friends, who tell their friends, the experience gets played out, the market over-saturated, the places begin to cater to their new crowd, the experience loses its luster, and its off in search of the next true authentic thing. Kale is so 2014. Acai is so 2016. Ecstatic Dance is so 2018. [In case you’re wondering: 2020 is when white Millennials had Black Life Appreciation Month in June, just before we vote at just the right percentage for Trump to steal, or outright win, another term in November. The only thing trending in 2020 is civil society, and that’s trending down.]
To sharpen the point: Austin’s famous Sixth Street was once filled with edgy live music venues, giving the city its moniker as “The Live Music Capital of the World.” Then, it was stuffed with bachelor(ette)-party-friendly shot-bars featuring (mostly) barely competent white dudes with acoustic guitars covering “Wonderwall” in the front windows for peanuts pay. I know this … I was once one of them. [Except, really, fuck “Wonderwall.” Good song, but please, cover artists, switch up your sets. Arcade Fire is just as White and far less mainstream — he says, as he pushes up his glasses].
Austin’s evolution spanned nearly two decades, everyone noticed, and although everyone kvetches about it, no one seems all that hell-bent on reversing its course. Perhaps that’s just the way capitalism works. Perhaps true authenticity is anathema to profit margins.
Look, I’m sure there’s art and stories — in the true sense — behind lots of “authentic” things, but those ledes are buried under a ton of hashtag-authentic things. So you, fellow actual-authentic human, can take heed and take heart in the knowledge that very few people’s lives are that special: the coaches, consultants, influencers, curators and content creators? Their book isn’t much different than yours. They can stick that in their perfectly poured matcha latte and drink it.
The Influencer Industrial Complex isn’t coming for us all … it’s already here. Our own fellow flesh and blood humans — weaponized as conduits for capitalism, selling us a lifestyle that is as impractical as it is unattainable, about as authentic as the red checkerboard tables they trot out at Maggiano’s. Yes, that’s how Italian restaurants should look. Yes, the food is, nominally, Italian. No, it’s not an authentic Italian restaurant.
Like so many other authentic places, it’s all an approximation no different than a modern-looking village inside a bustling metropolis that’s dressed up to look like an old-time town square. They bulldozed a real thing to build it, and it was probably land that used to belong to a marginalized group — with its own culture and vibrancy that’s been stamped out, priced out and pushed out to the suburbs where the white people used to live. Now you can rent a one-bedroom there for the cost of a 4,000 square-foot McMansion in a Midwestern suburb.
You can scroll past it all in one fell swoop: The hotel pool. The sunset. The six-pack abs. The lavish dinners. The artful wardrobe. The perfect family. The fortnight in Bali. The relentless and exhausting positivity. The banal platitudes that sound just profound enough to be smart and just agreeable enough to relate to. And the pastel walls … My god, the pastel walls.
Do not compare yourselves to them. They are, often, more magazine than human, willing and pushing to be heavily branded in the hopes of fame and free swag. They’re an experiment in just how far we can take the maxim “the surest way to get people to do what you want them to is to convince them it’s their idea.”
Do not believe what you see. No one’s life is as perfect or as glamorous as you think it is, even in their darkest of moments when they hashtag it “real talk.” Photos are maps. Life is territory. Words are advertising.
In a way, this is capitalism’s logical end: humans as storefronts, personalities as products, character as brand. And, whether it’s authentic or not is sort of besides the point — the real crux now is that we can no longer tell.
Authenticity is bullshit. Not because it doesn’t exist — it probably does, somewhere, someplace — but because it’s irrelevant and, without being wrapped up in something (or someone) beautiful or otherwise compelling, it’s unprofitable.
Please stop “showing up as your authentic self.” It doesn’t mean anything anymore. Authenticity is another buzzword like “sustainability,” in that its just something you can say and signal to draw in a potential audience and, later, a potential customer base — for a book, or for CBD “wellness” products, or for speaking gigs and panel appearances.
So, perhaps in search of authenticity, or being “more authentic” — whatever the fuck that means anymore — take up this cross instead. Be, and seek, genuine.
Genuine is truth. It’s the original. It’s your essence distilled to its essence. It’s untainted by marketing objectives, engagement rates, personal branding. It’s un-co-opted, and un-gentrified. Should you stumble upon it, or embody it, do us all a favor and don’t post about it or tell your friends. Some secrets are just too perfect to be let out into the wild.
Oscar Wilde once famously wrote, “Everything popular is wrong.” I know this, because I read it on a T-Shirt, pictured in an ad on Instagram, which was served up to me via algorithm, because Instagram knows I love dark existentialism. My own authentic interests. Used against me as hashtag-spon-con. For capitalism. And now I’m passing it onto you in my own work. I never bought the T-Shirt, but I did heart the post. After all, I genuinely like the message, ensuring I’ll see “more like this,” as the algorithm tailors my experience to my every whim. It may not be authentic, but it’s who I am.
“It may not be authentic, but it’s who I am.” I do some breathwork. The ouroboros eats its own head. The universe falls into a sink-hole. An approximation appears in its place. I hear its just like the original. Comment below if you agree.