If you are posting to a general audience on a social media platform, you are making an attempt at “influencing.” There is no coherent position from which one can attempt “de-influencing” — a trend adroitly swatted away in this Financial Times op-ed by Elaine Moore — just as there is no coherent way to sell anti-consumerist products. You can’t make “I don’t have an image” your image. “Anti-fashion” is just a definition of fashion. There is no authentic way to plan your spontaneity, unless your concept of “authentic” is “a rhetorical feint to distract from irresolvable contradictions.”
Of course, that is not to say there is not a market for products that are against “the market.” Claiming to be against contrived commercialism is an evergreen promotional tactic, as if the blatant contradiction somehow brain-scrambles audiences into a more pliable state. “Authenticity” tends to be presented as though it meant one was placing some other value ahead of profitability, but in practice it means stealthily assimilating different affects and types of performances to the pursuit of profit. It elevates certain practices as “authentic” and noncommercial as the means of commercializing them. As Moore points out, “If creators are fighting harder for subscribers and brand dollars, performing authenticity is one way to stand out. De-influencing videos are a way to prove autonomy and create a closer connection with viewers” — or at least a way to more successfully feign autonomy and intimacy temporarily, until whatever current set of signs connoting “real presence” or “spontaneity” become exhausted, cliched, phony.
No matter what is shown, no matter what the tropes are, “it is all a performance of authenticity from people who are extremely aware that they are being watched,” as Moore writes. But it is not the case that these tropes trick consumers into seeing something “fake” as real. Just as some buy trendy clothes precisely because they know they will go out of fashion, some may follow “influencer” discourse to track the trends in what appears authentic, which is just another aspect of fashionability.
Knowing how to present yourself in a way that reads as “real” means keeping up with trends, not ignoring them, even as many of these trends hinge on some pretense of “naturalness” or “effortlessness.” Most people’s effortless self-presentation is unremarkable; passing off one’s labored expression of naturalness demonstrates one’s prestige, one’s influencing capacity. Moore suggests “de-influencing” illustrates “how difficult it is to seem credible and trustworthy online,” but again, credit and trustworthiness can only be understood in their commercial senses. The endless shifts in what conveys “realness” is a matter of re-enchanting products and, more important, re-enchanting the idea of fashion cycles in general, that one must constantly change to consistently be one’s “real self.”
In her op-ed, Moore briefly references The Influencer Industry, a recent book by media scholar Emily Hund that assesses “the industrial construction of authenticity” and how images of “being real” are administered by an “ecosystem” of “marketers and technologists, brands and sponsors, social media corporations and a host of others, including talent managers and trend forecasters” to support systematic value extraction. This industry establishes the incentives and conditions that produce “influencers,” who are then held responsible as individuals for those conditions.
“Authenticity” in this context is nothing more than creating demand in such a way that it can be transferred to products and ideas and services and people who are for sale. It is, Hund argues, more like charisma than fidelity to one’s supposed essence; it’s “the quality that makes one person more influential than another,” which is to say that it is the concept through which such comparisons can be made. “Authenticity” is much discussed because it is how we talk about who can sell something without regard to that something’s intrinsic merits.
Hund argues that the authenticity industry “takes uncertainty and makes it feel manageable.” That also sounds like the fashion business, which works to make social change appear to occur on a schedule, while expending the energy of unrest on trivial things that preserve existing power relations. The “use value” of fashion and authenticity both rest in the opportunities they afford for placing oneself socially, for announcing one’s status and access to cultural information and the means for implementing it, for facilitating a fantasy of social mobility that involves nothing more than putting on clothes and not addressing anything underlying how society is organized.
In an essay for the London Review of Books, Will Davies describes what he calls “the reaction economy” — “the vast amounts of time and labour that societies such as ours now invest in actively trying to generate and capture reactions of various kinds” — which has some overlap with “the influencer industry.” Not only are both preoccupied with online “engagement,” but both influence and reaction — forms of manipulation — can be laundered as “authenticity” and made to seem to be desirable products in their own right: the pleasure of feeling something deeply, whether it is vicarious identification with an aspirational role model or the negative solidarity of dunking on people online. Being influenced (or resisting influence) is a kind of experiential good, as is having a reaction (regardless of its positive or negative valence). Reactions are in some respects the unit of measure for influence, a means for converting both into cash equivalents.
Davies traces the economic interest in harnessing reactivity back through 20th century investigations of behaviorism, which regarded humans as programmable machines, with any interior emotional experience or consciousness being epiphenomenal. This view converges with the idea that “spontaneous” reactions are somehow more true and “authentic” than planned or reasoned ones. To behave automatically is to close off the space where “inauthentic” motivations can creep in; nothing is more effortlessly authentic than an animal. “Authenticity” sits at the contradiction between spontaneity as automaticity and spontaneity as free action that breaks the causal chain. It suggests that you shouldn’t have to try to be, to belong, to have a self, but also that you must never stop trying, that the effort will be continual and you will always fall short.
Authenticity is fundamentally anti-intellectual, in that it represents conscious cognitive effort as both intrinsically commercial and something that must be disguised or disavowed. Focusing on reactions facilitates that disavowal, which helps explain how we have “come to imbue the split-second emotional response with so much cultural and moral value, to the point where significant moments in our lives can be arranged in pursuit of it,” as Davies asks. The reaction video is, as Davies explores, one species of planned spontaneity as reified authenticity. “The most successful reaction video-makers have a likeable, innocent air,” he writes. “They listen in a spirit of wonder, not unlike a baby hearing something for the first time.”
For Davies, the centrality of the reaction leads to a particular kind of influencer who “successfully maintains an influential public position through a capacity and willingness to react in spectacular ways.” All influencers could be understood as designated reactors, like designated mourners but more versatile. We pay in various ways for them to have feelings for us, or to have feelings that we can leech off of to have our own.
The appeal of reaction videos — and influencers — would seem to be in a kind of mimetic desire; what we want is to see what other people want, how they respond to things, and that is often more important and more marketable than any specific content, as if a song itself is at best a pretense for gaining access to some other person’s emotional capacity. Why watch a movie when you can watch other people watching it? Davies discusses this in terms of the neuroscientific idea of “mirror neurons,” the idea that
when we witness someone else apparently experiencing an intense emotion or feeling, our own neural circuits are affected in turn. Thus to see someone in acute pain provokes activity in the parts of our own brains that are associated with pain. Reaction videos could be explained in similar terms: excitement, fear, pleasure and surprise can be experienced in small, manageable doses by witnessing them on the face of the other.
This nonverbal, non-rhetorical form of emotional contagion, he suggests, is then taken for “authenticity” — a real, immediate experience of communication without communication. As with other forms of “parasociality” you can experience interpersonal interaction through commercial media and value it in terms of its “authenticity” rather than its reciprocity.
Much of the preoccupation with authenticity seems guided by a search for a replacement for other people’s recognition, a way to get recognition without being vulnerable or without having to give any in return, or a way to turn it into a market exchange that rationalizes it. The same antimonies at work with authenticity — “how do I fake being real,” etc. — are inevitably going to shape the discourse about chatbots, another media format that will be oriented toward sharpening definitions of the “real” so that they can be used to add value to indifferent products. Anthropomorphizing chatbots extends the process of regarding humans as authentic. Authenticity is just how we anthropomorphize ourselves as market pressures and manipulative media increasing push us into being reactive machines.