Performative vs Authentic Authenticity: How to Connect On Social Media

Do you ever find yourself feeling like an accidental voyeur while scrolling through your social feed and seeing someone’s attempt to share something REAL and AUTHENTIC? You get what they’re after, but it feels a little flat, a little forced, and quite frankly like they’re being ‘trendy’ with this deep dive… You’re not alone. As our online worlds and social circles grow, sharing the things that matter most to us via social channels is an inevitable necessity. The question then becomes how can we invite others into the things we are sharing that are deep and personal without affronting our audience with what we think it means to BE REAL?

[A moment to tease out what it means to BE REAL: this is completely subjective, and truly, up to your audience to decide. While you get to decide what and how much of any given situation you’re going to share (see The One Sock Method HERE), your audience will tell you what’s landing and what’s not. Still with me? Awesome, let’s keep going.]

Although social media will always be a little voyeuristic (and it’s understandable why!), there are two main different types of authenticity that leave us either feeling like we know and understand the presenter better and closer, or like we’ve stumbled into a scene we were never meant to see. Taking a page from Judith Butler and her theories on performativity, and the idea that the very essence of being human is performative in nature, the question we have to ask is: am I being performatively authentic or authentically performative?

Performatively Authentic is an overt performance at authenticity. It’s an attempt at what we think it means to be authentic but isn’t in line with what we believe and who we are at our core. This can look like:

  • Sharing every glamour shot for a perfectly curated feed while including a weekly caption that we need to break through the veneer and GET REAL, PEOPLE.

  • Taking a ‘social media detox’ then posting every single moment of that detox when you’re back on the ‘gram;

  • Complaining about voyeurism on social while also sharing every bit of your life via your public social handles;

  • Taking a stand for what you think folks want to hear (a perfect example being every corporation about Pride, aka Pride Pandering), rather than taking a stand for what matters most to you.

Being performatively authentic is kinda unavoidable on the internet because the internet isn’t a perfect approximation of communication in ‘real life.’ There’s a certain amount of re-learning we have to do in understanding how to present ourselves on the internet (context is a HUGE part of this), and if we’re being honest with ourselves, we’ve all had these moments. The important thing to remember is that as we learn and evolve our online personalities, we have to continue to examine our motivations and methods of storytelling.

So if performatively authentic is performing at authenticity rather than just existing in the natural state of performance, what might being authentically performative look like?

  • Allowing your brand to be vulnerable in its storytelling (origin stories, responsibility for mishaps, etc);

  • Lifting the curtain for the benefit of your audience, not to stroke your own ego;

  • Inviting folks into an intimate dialogue about something you feel deeply and engaging in the discourse, whether it’s in agreement with you or no;

  • Taking a stand for what you believe in passionately and not letting the fear of a backlash keep you from speaking your mind;

The key to this is understanding performance as our baseline. If we’re drinking the Butler Kool-Aid (and for the purposes of this post, we are), there is no point in time we are not performing at something. Thus, authentically performative isn’t about producing a great performance, it’s about stripping down any excess artifice and simply revealing what is.

Great no problem, we’re all good to go!

JK, it’s a little more complicated than that.

And a lot of this comes down to that bit I mentioned at the beginning: it’s for your audience to decide. Though at its root AUTHENTIC is all about being true to one’s personality or character, it’s imperative that we examine this through the highly focused lens that social media forces us under. When we’re sharing on social, we’re giving very specific, highly localized looks into our day to day activities. Our audiences can only understand and digest the things they’ve seen us share - unless it’s been shared, there’s no larger context to draw on - which means we either have to fill in the picture and or keep what we share limited to the information that’s already been shared. This doesn’t mean we can’t be true to ourselves and our character: it means we need to understand the perspective our audience has.

Another key component of being Authentically Performative is motive: WHY are you sharing the things you’re sharing. Are you pandering to your audience or is this something you want to stand behind at all times? Let’s look at the example of taking a stand with a hot topic near and dear to my heart: mental health. It’s one thing to post about the importance of mental health once a year on Mental Health Day and it’s an entirely different thing to talk about being in the trenches of mental health struggles. Where I think many accounts falter in their attempt to sincerely communicate why mental health is so important to them, even if they’re only posting about it on Mental Health Day is to dig into WHY they only post about something once a year that they claim is so personal to them. As your audience, we don’t need to know that your brother committed suicide and that you deal with that loss daily and you both donate and volunteer for a number of local non-profits rooted in suicide prevention - if you want to share, fantastic, but we aren’t entitled to your personal story. Instead, if you don’t want to dive in deep, simply stating that you want to draw attention to this incredibly important day but that it’s too painful for you to post on the reg will let your audience know that this is something important to you, but not one you can go all in on all the time.

Ultimately, the key to being authentically performative is following your gut and not your ego. Vanity metrics are insidious little motivators, but working for those metrics is the surest way to finding yourself stuck in a feedback loop of performing at authenticity rather than delving into the things that are already authentically YOU.