The good, the bad and the truth

Image: Rlt/ YouTube

Image: Rlt/ YouTube

“If you decide to keep your low moments private, are you being “fake” or just not wanting to make that a public memory/relive it again when you’re out of that dark place? If you’re having problems with your spouse (or any other relationship) and you post a happy picture of the both of you, are you being ‘fake’ or just choosing to remember the good times?” @Oma_O, Instagram influencer.

Authenticity is a hot topic these days, especially when it comes to social media. Most of us have been guilty of presenting an overly curated version of ourselves on social media, of omitting our bad hair days (or bad relationship days) while also criticising others for doing the same.

But it’s even more of an issue for ‘influencers’ – those that effectively get paid to portray a certain lifestyle. People (and brands) flock to YouTube stars and Instagrammers because they seem more human than celebrities; but because they’re more ‘real’, people also expect them to share every facet of their lives, in the name of transparency and authenticity. But in reality, many of them are more like brands; their sponsorship and product deals often tie them to a certain aesthetic that reflects a brands’ values. But do they have a duty to be more authentic? And what responsibility do (or should) brands have in driving authenticity?

Big influencers like @Jackieaina, @Zoella, and @chiaraferragni have all amassed a huge social media following and transformed followers and views into a lucrative business. They represent the modern rags-to-riches story; going from anonymity to recognition of the influence they have over culture, all from the confines of their own home. It’s aspirational and has influenced a new wave of social media hopefuls.

But in reality, Instagram isn’t lucrative, especially for less well-known influencers. Mathias Bartl, a professor at Offenburg University of Applied Sciences, conducted a study of YouTube data that revealed it had become harder for newer creators to reach the pinnacle of success than it had been for their predecessors.

One of these newer, struggling creators is @Rlt_ (pictured above), aka Visabae, a fashion & beauty influencer who came under fire after releasing a 30-minute video asking for donations for her visa. She was portraying a life of wealth and glamour on Instagram, but in reality didn’t have enough money to stay in the country.

@Rlt_ spoke of being drawn to social media as a way of making a living, inspired by the success stories of the platform. But she’s now arguably a victim of a lack of transparency of the challenges that can come with social media fame and the difficulties of making a living via these platforms. She claimed that in order for brands to work with her, she needed to portray and maintain the image of a certain lifestyle that just wasn’t tenable.

It’s fair to say that real life doesn’t sell in a world where people aspire to be extraordinary. And brands are culpable in this in as far as they put pressure on influencers to look marketable. “Am I the person that Instagram makes me out to be?” asks influencer Huda Kattan. “Instagram is only a window into the fantasy of who you are. This is what you want people to think you are.”

That’s not to say that there aren’t content creators who have built their brand identity around authenticity and transparency. Influencers like @MunroeBergdorf, @Theslumflower and @SaggySara come to mind when thinking about honesty in the industry. They try to be inspirational as opposed to aspirational, and in doing so are all attempting to disrupt the narrative around our expectations of young women’s bodies. But we’re still seeing a curated version of their world; they have an alternative POV to the standard beauty blogger but nevertheless they conform to a particular aesthetic, and that can’t be a reflection of the variety of life, no matter how candid. And as Flamingo described in a recent Instagram post, that pressure to maintain the same aesthetic and the same values can be damaging, no matter if you’re conforming to the mainstream ideal or attempting to subvert it.  

Ultimately, all influencers are at the mercy of what people, and platforms, want to see. As pop culture expert Joe Veix, in an article on the homogeneity of social media (and his view of its apocalyptic end game) says: “Getting attention on social media platforms requires creating content designed to perform well within their ecosystems. “Everything must contort to please the almighty Algorithmic Gods.”

The risk with this (beyond the risk to individuals) is that it eventually stamps out creativity and original content in favour of more of the same. Brands looking to profit from influencers should be encouraging the representation of multidimensional people and staying away from the aspirational and unattainable; surely there is more commercial benefit in championing well-rounded figures (their customers aren’t one-dimensional, after all).

As it stands, creators are being typecast and struggle to stray from ‘the what’ that made them popular. Platforms like Instagram are breeding inauthenticity in creators as people are encouraged to portray the most exaggerated, simplistic version of themselves in order to stay relevant.

That type of homogeneity can’t be reflective of the variety and unpredictability of life. “It creates this image of people that is very one dimensional, it's very superficial,” says Kattan. But it’s what algorithms demand.

Tinuke Fagborun, Flamingo