“Who Are We Anyway?”- Performative Authenticity
There’s a funny thing that happens when you try take your creative aspirations and turn them into a career. For one, your free time goes out the window. But two, you’ll inevitably end up in a lot of conversations about marketing. I’ve been writing in a semi-professional capacity for over five years (not counting the stint I did working in advertising). In that time I have had countless discussions with other writers at conventions, after conventions at IHOP, at bars and in group chats, coffee meet-ups and dinners. The chance of a conversation between two or more writers, artists, podcasters, youtubers, musicians and/or singers eventually turning into a conversation about marketing approaches one the longer it goes on.
There isn’t anything wrong with this, it’s pretty great community building. But what my overthinking ass is concerned with is “branding.”
Branding is a term that I’ve seen steadily grow in indie circles. When I worked in advertising we used this in regards to creating an established image or perception for companies or products. In theory this was supposed to maintain and reach out to target audiences, you know, people likely to buy your shit. Successful branding means imitating the values attitudes and demographics of your target consumers and having them positively associate your product with those feelings.
In creative circles, branding means creating a brand of the self. Or at least that’s what it means now. Before social media, the people who mostly had to worry about maintaining a brand were people with some aspect of celebrity. Traditional press writers can still get away without having to maintain a brand now too. But if you’re indie or part of a smaller press or doing multiple projects on multiple platforms without an agent or publicist then yeah, the *cheap* way to hopefully build an audience is through social media branding. Whether or not Twitter follows and Facebook likes lead to sales is a different matter altogether.
But what I’m really fascinated by is this branding of the self, turning one’s own social media performance into a deliberate consumable item. As writers, we’re no longer selling our books alone, but we have to sell ourselves and the books become an extension of that. We have to begin brand building even before our works are published in the hopes that we’ll have a captive audience prepared to buy our shit.
It isn’t the construction of an artificial self that bothers me on its own, and I’m not here to debate the concept of a “True” self verse a “False” self, (especially since I have maintained notion that there probably is no truer self than the curated persona). What is intriguing is the intersection of branding and performative authenticity. That when we “brand,” our audience is assuming that what we are presenting of ourselves as a Truth. Violating that covenant isn’t just a bad branding decision then, it becomes a betrayal. It creates a relationship with the target audience that goes deeper that typical performances do. People can understand that a good actor is playing a part, a part that is not them. But branding goes further, it is about crafting an illusion of real person. The brand persona is assumed to be the real life self.
A lot of the advice I’ve received on branding is that branding is merely a polished version of the person. I know a number of writers who’s real life personalities translate well into their branded ones. They are often generally very nice or very open or have a certain sensibility that allows them to connect with their target audience naturally. Their constructed self doesn’t feel like a performance, even to themselves.
Some pull out all the stops to perform a version of ourselves that contains just enough authenticity to seem real, but not so real that you get the entirety of their existence. It’s a balance, maintaining a marketable persona with the pretense of honesty. It’s a book plug followed by a kitten video, followed by re-tweeted fan art, followed by a selfie. A rotation of self promotion, persona and “relatability”.
I’ll be honest, I’m not good at personal branding. In part because I lack impulse control and will do things like tweet out something nihilistic only to delete it a few hours later. Also my life is boring and I am a private, curmudgeonly, person. But I am often in awe of how well people craft personas close enough to the truth to be relatable and believable while still maintaining some professional distance.
There is a delicateness in it, some people live their lives in full transparency. Their vulnerability becomes the thread that connects them to their followers. That sort of online presence takes a tremendous amount of bravery, to live unashamedly as oneself in a space that is often highly filtered. Or to live like that in a space that also holds such potential for harassment or violation.
Others are more reserved in their branding and instead focus on community building or focusing on their specific fields. Even then, there is still the either vocal request for more. A demand for transparency by people who have consumed the product is all encompassing. It’s in every “Q & A request” on a Youtube video, or unsolicited personal request on Instagram. As a people, we are so used to a perceived transparency, that we demand it as a natural bi-product of art creation.
I’m not immune to this curiosity. Hell, just after getting into Queer Eye I went ahead and Instagram-lurked the Fab 5. This curiosity, this need to learn about the people who make things we enjoy is understandable. Artists, writers, performers, creators, may feel the need to construct these simulacrums of their lives for our consumption. I have to wonder, is this a natural effect of art-making? And is it stable?
The performance of authenticity, ironic on its own, can create a disconnect between the performer and their social media persona. I wonder how often people come to hate their creations, how much they may begin to resent the performance of a person that is part truth and part construct. And while we feel that pressure to perform in our daily lives or on queue, I would suggest that doing it online at a constant, in a place where people have some ability for anonymity that allows them to live their Truth, is an intimate exercise. It is an intimate thing to perform yourself, and performing a version of yourself without all the things you may dislike. And, it is very easy to come to resent your own creation.
Maybe we have become so accustomed to authenticity as a natural outgrowth of artistic processes, that we forget that it’s often artificial. We may forget that people shouldn’t have to give more transparency about their lives to satisfy our curiosity. Or, at least, we should not hold them to account when they violate the social contract and it comes to pass that the authenticity they performed was just that: a performance.
What I’m really trying to say after a thousand words or so is, when are you going to follow me on twitter?
(Originally published by CLASH in March 2018. Check out CLASHbooks.com, especially Tragedy Queens, edited by Leza Cantoral)
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