Toxic Authenticity


There has been a raft of examples of what has been dubbed ‘Creator Burnout’ on YouTube, but also been linked to other Social Media platforms and their ‘Influencers’ too. The Guardian ran a major article in their weekend supplement talking to prominent YouTubers about the deteriorating mental health amongst ‘Creators’ (apologies for over using apostrophes but I hate these New Tech Business Lingo terms for art and artists and I don’t want anyone thinking I use these despicable, reductive, dehumanising terms in real life). Many mainstream outlets have published articles or done pieces discussing the rise in these difficulties among the new generation of rock stars, citing ill-preparedness for fame and a lack of empathy from their fans and the platforms that exploit said ‘Creators’ as the overall causes. Mental health and anxiety disorders have become a growing problem in youth culture globally and is having some very serious effects, but this seems compounded in the high-profile landscape of YouTube. Internet celebrity couple Meg Turney and Gavin Free recently suffered an armed break in at their home by an obsessed fan of Turney’s. Not to mention the psychological impact the various stresses of their lifestyle and workload puts upon the individual. While I personally feel like this is another example of the corporatisation of society that treats humans like nothing more than nodes and is hard proof of the exploitation of the ‘Gig Economy’ thrust upon an unsuspecting work force post 2008 Crash, there are admittedly many contributing factors to this issue. The burnout these young celebrities are experiencing certainly stand as totems of the current Economy.

Lindsay Ellis, herself a ‘Content Creator’ on YouTube, made this excellent video on the subject that explores the idea of Emotional Labour and how that pertains to the demands of employers/financiers of the modern workforce. She discusses the idea of Authenticity being used as a type of currency by internet celebrities. Vloggers are expected to be their own real, authentic selves despite being on a carefully curated medium that is designed to present their best side. This constant requirement to appear happy and positive is Emotional Labour, and, consequently, this positivity that is created through ‘Authenticity’, must be their constant state. This ‘Authenticity’ is achieved in a variety of ways: their behind-the-camera interactions, outtakes, shooting style and so on. Lindsay’s video is fascinating and explains all this in detail, definitely worth a watch, but what it made me think about is the current difficulty with this idea of Authenticity and its pernicious effect at large, not just on YouTube.

If Authenticity has become a currency who dictates its value? The desire for Authenticity originates in a buyers and seller’s market place. Certain products require authentication to ascertain their value: rare collectibles, antiquities, art work, food. This typically meant looking at factors like place of origin or source, manufacturer, previous users or owners and so on. This then is translated into monetary value by The Market. Today this cold, objective standard that we call authenticity is put upon real living people or even just opinions. Politicians and leaders are judged on their authenticity using the same criteria: Where are they from? Who is their family? Who do they associate with? What did they do for a living? Etc. In the UK we’re still obsessed with class and the authenticity of your class is always in question, i.e. How working class are you really? And if you don’t meet a strict set of criteria to fall in a certain class, you’re not deemed authentic. Celebrities even pretend to be authentic with one comedian on Twitter repeatedly referencing the fact he used to watch ‘Blind Date’ on TV as proof of the fact he was working class. Blind Date being a well known barometer for household income and property location in the UK… Articles written on a given news story are leant authenticity by who they quote from depending on the subject. If it’s Brexit, say, the journalist will want to speak to an ‘authentic’ source: your average Joe, your everyday voter, etc. Ignoring the fact no such mythical creature even exists. While Trump’s authenticity is summed up by his supporters in the fact white working class voters in the south voted for him. “He understands the working man” they say. Specifically, the WHITE and MAN part of that defence, I’d add. The point is that authenticity is currency and currency equates to value. So how do we create value?

There’s another great video by the RSA just put out that discusses value creation historically and how, where once value was dictated by, say, Labour or Farming, today value is largely ascribed based on Preference, which is why marketing and advertising is such a lucrative business even in the supposedly punishing recession of a post-2008-crash world. The idea of individual Preference dictating the Market is a fascinating one as it implies value based on need is significantly reduced, i.e. Automation and technology has made our lives so much easier that preference is primary now needs are generally met. Except they aren’t. 4 million children growing up in poverty in the UK according to a recent survey means needs are NOT being met. The Conservative dream of The Big Society came true, the State deteriorated in favour of individuals being relied upon to offer what should be provided by a Government. Food banks set up by local businesses when local authorities should provide, for instance. This creates the bizarre contradiction that the value of a human being has vastly decreased and yet the Average Person is seen as a highly valued cultural currency due to a premium being placed on this ill-defined authenticity. We want “Real” people to authenticate a policy or product because their preference essentially creates value, and yet the market itself could not care less about basic human needs. Confusing.

Value Theory says that something is only worth what someone is willing to pay for it. This is because Money is a purely human construct that is a representation of that value. We say what something is worth to us, then represent that in the physical currency or digits in a bank’s computer. It is interesting then who we allow to dictate the terms of value. A value typically based on authenticity, authenticity which is ALSO a human construct. As such, the extent of YouTuber burnout can be measured by the high cultural value that is placed on these people crossed with how little we actually care about their well-being. A Social Media star’s value is only as high as their level of authenticity, yet both that value and that authenticity are entirely arbitrary. There is a pejorative term for the people who demand and dictate these terms that has emerged online: Authentocrat. The implication being that to the Authentocrat nothing is viable unless it is authentic, and yet they themselves dictate the terms of that authenticity. If this sacred authenticity is achieved, then yours is the earth my son etc but if not then you, your work or opinion can be dismissed instantly. It’s all just a horrible mess of self-serving ideologies that puts unreasonable demands on a, typically young, person that then sees them treated like nothing more than a disposable rag. To say nothing of the fact people of a certain age/background will equally turn their nose up and state that being a ‘Content Creator’ isn’t a real job anyway, thereby stating indirectly that their job and the individual is inauthentic. You can’t possibly win. It’s no wonder all these people are crumbling under the strain of this cyclical logic that creates as quickly as it destroys.

The poison of ‘Authenticity’ is everywhere today, and it is corrosive to any kind of meaningful cultural growth or development because, as mentioned earlier, authenticity is dictated not only by an individual’s preference but also by history. There are no historical precedents for careers on the internet as it has only become a viable option in the last 10 years. The cultural, economic and historic value, and thereby ‘Authenticity’, of Content Creators is yet to be established or even really understood. So it is no wonder this kind of burnout is being seen because people are trying to make themselves valuable and authentic in such a short amount of time when a queue of people wait behind them to take their place. Whereas what we should be doing is flushing these entirely arbitrary notions of authenticity down the toilet and settling on exact definitions of what authentication means and not letting the soulless, dead voice of The Market dictate the terms. Authenticity is a myth that only benefits the Authenticator.