How Do We Stay Authentic?
We live in a digital age that lets us make ourselves the heroes in our own stories. We can connect with others like never before and yearn to create and share content that inspires them. Social media has been around for 15 years and life without it now seems unimaginable. But social media also shapes our view of reality and affects our understanding of our true selves. So how do we stay true to who we are? And to what extent does our own content influence us?
Written by Dorien Franken | Edited by Siji Jabbar
There’s a scene in the film Forrest Gump where Jenny Curran asks Forrest if he ever dreams of who he’s going to be, to which he replies, “Aren’t I gonna be me?”. It’s a brilliant answer, but begs the question: How much of “you” is left when you grow up? Is it possible to remain truly authentic? The question assumes even greater relevance when we consider the constant stream of information that washes over us in the form of news, trends and social media posts that tell us what to be, and the availability of tools with which to filter and manipulate reality in order to become that person. Is unreality now the new reality?
As a business owner, I use Instagram and Facebook to share my beliefs, work and aspects of my personal life with my audience. And I enjoyed doing so until about two years ago, when algorithms turned hitherto social mediums into hyper-competitive battlegrounds. Suddenly, instead of posting your thoughts and ideas whenever you felt like it and had something to say, you now had to think about when to post your news, what hashtags to use to be heard above the hubbub and how to get as many people to comment on or “like” your post so that a coded list of rules would pick up on the heightened activity and boost your content. And then things took a weirder turn.
Spend any time on Instagram and you will find lots of small brands clamouring for attention. But there is never enough attention to go around. So, when this commodity proves elusive (or doesn’t manifest itself quickly enough), some seek out shortcuts, the most common of which is to simply buy followers. Buy enough of these and you can become #instafamous and level the playing field with the platform’s 500 million other active users. But of course these “followers” are empty shells, bots or inactive accounts that don’t react, interact or mean anything. In a way you’re only fooling yourself. It’s like sending out a thousand invitations to a party you know will only draw your aunt Jopie and ten of your closest friends.
Not only has social media encouraged you to sell the “best” version of yourself, it’s led you to sell your creation to people that don’t exist — a double negative that can never turn in to a positive. How do we free ourselves from this? Is there a way out? Well yes, there is. It goes without saying that we are each responsible for our own actions. Nevertheless, it would help a lot if Instagram were to make it impossible to maintain an account with fake followers, and in so doing create room for honesty and integrity. There was a time when it was not the worst thing in the world for people to know that your shop hadn’t had a great season or that the newcomer on the block had only a few clients. This was in the real world, the physical world, and it wasn’t that long ago.
Your brand’s success does not depend on social media. It depends on what you stand for and whether your idea and drive come from the heart rather than the ego, on whether your business is rooted in a solid business model and on how you interact with people. You don’t have to compete with 500 million users because you don’t have to compete with anyone at all. You are your only competition.
The honest way forward is to make social media a place where you can show you true self, but this isn’t easy in the current climate. I, too, find myself taking more than five (okay 10) pictures of that one event, party or holiday to get the best possible one to post. And yes, while the urge is partly driven by my self-imposed standards as an art director, I know that’s not the only reason.
It was the yearning for connection of true selves that sowed the seeds for The Folks Magazine. I felt lost in the swirling nothingness of social media “conversation” and wanted to create a safe space where it was okay to be vulnerable, to dream, be an idealist or even a failure, all of which are feelings and experiences we all share and that make us who we are. The people we’ve interviewed so far may have formulated their most important piece of advice in different ways — “Trust in your own idea” (Brian Boswijk, Vuurtoreneiland), “Don’t copy/past, but create something of your own” (Ruerd Akersloot, Coffee&Coconuts), “Find solutions within yourself” (Frederik Molenscho, Studio Molen) etc. — their message is clear: keep it real.
Over the last couple of years I’ve encountered more and more people that are making a similarly conscious choice to attend to their inner selves and forge connections with people who feel the same, while retreating from the manufactured personas of their past and of others. I recall the warm glow that I felt when the artist Christian Watson stated on Instagram that the pressure of maintaining his account had become overwhelming and that the time it required had consumed too much of his real life. It was his last post before taking the account offline. I was seriously impressed; but to my surprise, it is now live again. I guess we each need to find our own balance.
For us at The Folks Magazine, this means posting just once or twice a week. The rest of the time we’re meeting people, reading stories or creating things elsewhere. My experience of social media has only confirmed how much I need human interaction. I need to belong to something real, something that doesn’t come scented, edited or surrounded by noise. I need the freedom to remain still, reflect, feel the ground beneath my feet and shed the layer of perfectionism. Authenticity has never needed a filter.
The other day, I visited my 79-year-old mother, who lives in the south of Holland. Social media is of as much use to her as those cheap flyers you find in your letterbox. True, she has a Facebook and Instagram account (that I created for her), but when she tells me how she feels, what’s happened in her life, what she’s worried about and what she wishes, she isn’t selling me on her thoughts. She is just sharing who she is with me. It was such a refreshingly authentic experience that I had to capture the occasion for Instagram.
Now all she has to do is like it.
Got any thoughts on the subject? Leave a comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Dorien Franken is the founder of The Folks of Amsterdam, an online magazine with a mission to share stories that inspire change and that reflect the failures and glories of daring, adventurous creatives of the city of Amsterdam. The magazine was launched in 2017 and has since grown into a respected platform for the Amsterdam creative industry.