It’s easy enough to find evidence that the United States are hardly that: a politics polarized and paralyzed beyond repair, any common ground of culture algorithmically splintered into countless media fragments. Even a steady erosion of religious affiliation suggests an increasingly faithless people, unbound by belief. But America does still share one ideal of worship, a passion for self-discovery that has become the central moral framework of our time.
Its name is authenticity.
How did we get here?
Reality television was one culprit. Thirty years ago, MTV initiated a social experiment to see what happens “when people stop being polite and start getting real.” From there, Mark Burnett, the genre’s most successful producer, made authenticity — which meant uninhibited self-disclosure — his “primary concern.” This redefined celebrity as relatable and intimate. It wasn’t enough to be famous. Stars also had to be “just like us.”
A decade later, social media offered everyone the experience of reality TV. Tech companies designed their platforms so that we produced content for them — generating billions of dollars of wealth from unpaid labor as they induced authenticity from us. No surprise, then, that by 2008, leading pollster John Zogby had found that a desire for authenticity topped Americans’ cultural and political yearnings.
Even the Pope waded into these murky waters. “In the search for sharing, for ‘friends,’ there is the challenge to . . . not give in to the illusion of constructing an artificial public profile for oneself,” a papal pronouncement exhorted in 2011. “Everyone is confronted by the need for authenticity.”
“Authenticity is absolutely the key to a great tweet,” former Twitter CEO, Dick Costolo, announced in 2013 on the “Today” show. His was one of many platforms — from Friendster to Snapchat — that defined itself against the purported phoniness of competitor sites.
Why did TikTok explode to surpass 3 billion downloads by the end of the 2010s and become the internet’s most trafficked domain? As one Nielsen study found, a majority of users trust others “to be their real selves” on the platform — the slovenly sweatpants alternative to the meticulously manicured Instagram.
“The mistakes — the kind of off-kilter angle, these are things that also contribute to the idea of, ‘Oh, this is a real person.’ A lot of the successful YouTube creators leave their mistakes in — they edit them in,” one YouTube executive explained to me.
Likewise, in 2022, tens of millions of GenZers downloaded a French-made app enjoining them to “BeReal,” snap unfiltered selfies, and show friends their mundane daily lives. Countless articles heralded this as the triumph of authenticity, amplifying this norm as overriding virtue.
The rise of the nano-influencer
Along the way, a $16 billion influencer industry was built on the foundation of everyday folks’ (authentic) sway over their virtual friends. Influencers’ ordinariness is the value they exploit — along with their relatable, supposedly private, publicly consumed lives. Posts about family experiences or personal tribulations could be exchanged for clicks and revenue.
Nearly 90 percent of consumers rank authenticity highest among brand qualities, trumping innovation and product uniqueness. This means that consumers are reportedly more likely to trust and buy products from posts uploaded by so-called real people. Influencers know that it’s better for the product pitch to blend in with their “authentic” native content. “I know how to market a product, and I know how to do it in a way that people don’t feel like they’re being sold to, which I think is huge,” one parenting influencer told me. “That’s the reason these companies are paying me.”
“It’s not about, ‘I wanna be like Mike’ — Michael Jordan. It’s about ‘[I wanna be] like Steve’ — and Steve’s the kid around the corner,” declared Jonathan Ressler, an influencer agency CEO. “Because they have a hell of a lot more credibility. And you can get 10,000 Steves for the price of one Mike.”
The influencer business’s biggest trend of late aims for those with the smallest celebrity: micro- and nano-influencers. Johnson & Johnson, for example, enlisted pimply teenagers on Instagram with as few as 500 followers each to hype a new line of cleansers and creams, because they were “doing things that other kids responded to authentically.”
The authenticity fallacy meets American politics
If voters ever contemplated the cliché “Which presidential candidate would I rather have a beer with?” — and this is a silly thing to contemplate — they’d have been seduced by the authenticity fallacy. It animates identity politics and stokes culture war fires: Who has the right to speak on behalf of a demographic group? Which leader reminds voters most of themselves? Who can show off better hobbies?
“There are many ways to succeed in American politics, but most of them involve authenticity,” Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson wrote in 2014. Whereas a lack of perceived authenticity sank the presidential bids of Al Gore, John Kerry, Mitt Romney, and Hillary Clinton, manufactured authenticity did wonders for Donald Trump.
Well ahead of the 2016 presidential election, one poll found that authenticity was more important to Donald Trump supporters than his policy views by an almost 2-to-1 margin. Trump bought his authenticity by being unrepentantly offensive in speech and amateurish on social media.
Most politicians adopt the right tone, depending on the crowd. For Trump, the ad-libs, the rambles — the careening, free-jazz, where-is-this-going, extemporaneous thought — all of it scans from the heart rather than as from some focus-group-tested calculation.
Online, Trump’s emotional capitalizations, unintelligible misspellings, scattershot punctuation, pixelated photos, shaky videos, and lack of visual consistency fly in the face of polished, official political content. An impulsive post after midnight couldn’t possibly be vetted by a comms team — which is precisely what made it and Trump seem authentic.
Yet by now we know that all this authenticity is actually fake. Behind the scenes, a wide array of professionals furnish that illusion on behalf of clients — whether politician, product, or platform. Which means that this thing we’re collectively chasing, this ideal we’re aspiring to, is an illusion. So what, then, does that say about us?
Michael Serazio is an associate professor of communication at Boston College and the author of “The Authenticity Industries: Keeping It ‘Real’ in Media, Culture, and Politics.”