You’ve heard this complaint before, of course. It’s the chief existential unease of a generation aging into adulthood with social media, noting (with ever-growing alarm) the discrepancies between their experienced reality and the photos in their social feeds. Just last week, Neistat himself released a highly-hyped app called Beme, promising to free us all from social media chicanery; Neistat swears that Beme is the first app in this wealfie-sending, humblebragging world to capture and share life authentically.
“Authenticity is a weird concept,” laughs Jenny Davis, a sociologist at James Madison University. “It’s socially constructed. It’s not a real thing.”
As Davis explains it, an “authentic” person would be someone who never plays a role, which is simply impossible. Whenever a person is in a social situation — even with an intimate, like a family member or a friend — she’s inherently performing a character, a slightly more palatable version of herself. (Sociologists have accepted this theory as law since the late 1950s, though Shakespeare was arguably on it before anybody else.)
Think about it: You act differently with your mother than you do with your boss, and you follow rules and norms and fashions with which you might not strictly agree. You act nice towards neighbors you hate. You say you’re doing “pretty good” when you feel like crying. It’s the toll you pay, in short, to live in a polite and functional human society.
No one is ever truly “authentic”: and that’s an unequivocally positive, prosocial thing.
Still, it’s uncomfortable to realize that everyone around us is performing a role, exactly as we’re performing. It means we never necessarily know the whole “truth,” or understand our loved ones in their entirety. Studies have shown, for instance, that while virtually everyone polishes their own Facebook profile, they disdain anyone else who does the same.
The selfies, the filters, the thirsty status updates: Each of these breaks the cardinal rule of a very ancient social game. You can and must “fake” your identity, just to survive, but no one’s supposed to see you play.