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The lowlight reel era: how authenticity became influencer social currency

Has influencer authenticity gone too far? And is it creating new pressures for influencers to show their worst parts?

Australian Instagram star Essena O’Neill broke the internet in 2015 after rewriting her 96 Instagram captions to portray the inauthentic curation which loomed heavy over each post. Years later, her own existential crisis would transform Instagram into an online confessional of influencers posting “getting real” posts, owning the strenuous editing processes they indulge in for the gram. Just as followers sigh a sense of relief that the highlight reel isn’t so real, influencer authenticity dwindles in the eyes of followers the moment they hook their authenticity on their new brand partnership or product they set out to promote. Authenticity has undeniably become social currency, which raises the question: has influencer authenticity gone too far? And is it creating new pressures for influencers to show their worst parts?

600,000 followers into her bourgeoning online stardom, 19-year-old O’Neill from Queensland, Australia was pocketing from one-off brand endorsements at the height of the aspirational social media era in a stunt to profit off a contrived sense of beauty. $500 to wear a dress and here $600 to endorse a bikini there. If she was expected to post at least once a day, it doesn’t take a genius to calculate the hefty sum she was bringing in each day.

Seven years on, social media has taken on new dimensions. Influencers mass between 300,000 and 1 million followers making it an alluring prospect for young people who can cash in on carefully curated content. But as you click on the seemingly average mirror selfie, there can up to five brand endorsements lurking behind it – that’s thousands of pounds sprinkled over each post. This trend we’ve become immune to, especially when the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) instigated the practice of proofing posts with #AD to make influencer marketing transparent and honest. Consumers started to understand that sponsored posts is in fact how influencers monetize their content.

But despite this trend towards influencer transparency, followers become fatigued by the influencer turned salesperson who takes on a shameless attitude to overt product placement. This made authenticity critical – a circulating buzz word of the Gen Z and millennial generation who demand it from both brands and influencers. Research from Sideqik revealed that 84 per cent of consumers say authenticity determines who they follow and trust and 77 per cent of consumers also say they have purchased a product based on an influencer’s post. There’s no time like the present - being authentic is the influencer’s USP.

The irony to O’Neill’s 2015 confessional is that she racked up another 350,000 followers the moment she got real. Although sitting comfortably on one million followers by 2016, her new liberal, hippy and stripped back persona meant she was forced to bow down to the glamorous and exclusive brand partnerships she had spent years accumulating. Besides, she had to practice what she preached meaning brand endorsements were out of the equation.

(Picture: Daily Mail)

Mysteriously vanishing from the online world, O’Neill’s exit paved the way for a new influencer trend: authenticity as currency. Aspirational posts became a trend to discard with and “getting real” posts became a permanent fixture of the influencer galaxy. It sought to remove the ironically dirty bacteria deep in the crevis of seemingly polished posts and sparked an online confessional where our most desirable influencers transported themselves back down to reality.

Captions became extended essays condemning the online world’s suffocating highlight reel, where the aspirational posts we long strived for are exposed as out-right unattainable. Revealing the contrast between her original and edited posts, Sydney based influencer Pia Muehlenbeck told her 2 million followers: “Your friendly reminder that social media isn’t always real…social media has evolved in to ‘the best bits’ of our lives with some added sparkles. It’s so important to remember that.” From Molly-Mae Hague’s YouTube video revealing the apps she uses to edit her photos to journalist Danae Mercer offering an entire Instagram account revealing the poses, positions and apps used to make women’s bodies Instagrammable, a spin-off series of “Insta vs reality” maintained a firm grip online. Influencers began posting side-by-side comparisons, unravelling the production process from conception to publication – carefully structured, strenuously edited and subsequently promoted. That’s, we were told, is how influencers have long faked their way to online fame.

(Photo: Screenshot from Danae Mercer instagram account)

(Photo: Screenshot from Rianne Meijer instagram account)

But another type of influencer splinters from this lowlight reel era – the one who did a 180 shift from aspirational posts and instead captivates audiences through the commodification of their own personal struggle. From posting teary stories about their bad day, an image of them curled on the sofa eating chocolate rather than celery juice, to publicly declaring their personal battles with eating disorders, social anxieties and panic attacks, the demand for authenticity have forced influencers to declare the most vulnerable and introspective parts of themselves.

When research published in the journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture revealed the deteriorating impact Instagram can have on mental health, the “getting real” revolution marked a breakthrough in the war against contrived realities and the post-aspirational era was a moment to celebrate. But when insecurity is re-engineered to make it aspirational and profitable, influencer marketing has walked ten steps the other way into delirium and manipulation – that’s what the aspirational posts did, the “getting real” posts are no different.

Influencers still need to monetise on content and if the data is telling them to be more authentic to gain a loyal following on the internet and scoop up brand partnerships, so be it. Taking centre stage on their Instagram stories with the iPhone spotlight on, they carefully craft a monologue to their audience about their insecurities with their stomach with a link to the spanx that have been helping dial it down. They broadcast their personal struggle with acne and reveal the brand partnership with the skin company that promises to diminish it immediately (at an extortionate cost) a week later. Some simply build an entire account to share their daily struggles so that both the mindfulness app and journal they intend to launch a few months later becomes a massive hit. Although their message is grounding and helpful to an extent, the passages these influencers craft to make their “I’m insecure too” message land, instead often appear like a carefully whipped up PR stunt – strategically organised and designed to tap into our deepest insecurities for profit.

Revealing the worst parts of themselves to cash in on a brand partnership tells followers one thing – you’re insecure but I’ve got a workout programme or meditation app that can fix that for you because my insecurities are your insecurities too. Herein lies in the inherent manipulation behind each “getting real” post – like the flaunted beauty behind each aspirational post, they leverage insecurity and translate it into sums and profits.

(Photo: Screenshot from Megan Rose Lane Instagram page)

But thankfully, ‘fake authenticity’ or ‘commodified authenticity’ is an easier trend to spot. 93 per cent of consumers say forced or ‘fake authenticity’ is just as likely to make them unfollow. If the logic goes that followers equals currency, influencers should be careful about the extent they go to in order to accumulate them, because us followers are becoming experts at sniffing out the deceptive from the real.

But equally, it’s important to acknowledge exactly what influencers are. Influencer Marketing Hub defines an influencer as someone who has the power to impact consumers' purchasing decisions because of their "authority, knowledge, position or relationship" with their audience. It’s therefore worth reminding ourselves that social media was designed to provide a virtual world where influencer-endorsed ads congest the virtual paths. Instagram’s infrastructure was engineered as a place for influencers to express their personality in a myriad of ways, whether that’s inspiring people to work out, providing fashion inspiration for young women, or bringing a community of book lovers together. A fashion influencer’s partnership with Zara just made it worthwhile. I have sympathy for influencers – whether taking the high road or the low road, it seems they’re always in the firing line.

It's also no wonder influencers feel obliged to unravel their worst parts and put them on display. The influencer contract, by the power of consumer demand, has been modified to bind them to their own insecurities in the pursuit of profit demanded by brands. As the middle man needing to pay the bills, they have become the primary interface where brands and consumers interact. Induced with pain and struggle, the “getting real” movement is however nothing other than a clever trick that replicates aspirational posts but masks with a new face – a sad one. But one can’t help thinking that it takes some guts to turn up to a social outing and reel off all your insecurities in an environment designed to have fun. So, there must be a solid incentive to declare them to strangers online.

That’s the thing about social media. The advent of it allows there to be two separate realities existing in parallel to one another and in the case of influencers, something that is acceptable in cyberspace wouldn’t be as tolerable in physical reality.

Following her emotional breakdown on YouTube, O’Neill has since deleted 2,000 photos across her social media accounts and professed that her courageous decision to continue her life offline would slash her ability to support herself financially. Four years later, she broadcasted that she was “really struggling” and that while there was something “so special” about having people listen to her opinions, what she misses most is “the insane pleasure of earning money like that”.

Despite being the martyr of the “getting real” movement she lead, it was the upcoming influencers who piggybacked on O’Neill’s heavy lifting. Rather than flaunting her insecurities online, signing out of the virtual world meant she paradoxically became the loser of her own project where vulnerability became the most profitable revenue stream going.


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