Post-Authenticity and the Ironic Truths of Meme Culture
May 1, 2018 8:47 AM   Subscribe

Jay Owens writes a fascinating essay on the relationship between the idea of "authenticity", truth, and the current generation's use of memes. What does it mean to be authentic and real online? What does our drive for authenticity in media and in self-presentation say about how we interact online? And most importantly, what can American Chopper memes contribute to the conversation? posted by redct (19 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
So, Society of the Spectacle with extra steps.

I've honestly been making this argument for years, always referencing SOTS.

The main takeaway I always had from SOTS was that media ends up alienating us from one another, it being a "collection of images that mediates human relationships." Memes are, of course, an extension of this. I think the author is right to want to return to discuss the alt-right in more detail, because their memes have been extremely effective recruitment tools, no matter how false their positions are.

It just used to be that corporations would use the Spectacle to make you feel like a "brand" was a friend.

Now, thanks to social media, we all have our requirement to make our own personal Spectacle of ourselves, essentially "selling ourselves" to other people socially. Putting our "best self" out there to be the most "authentic" we can be, while it all being a fucking sham of a lie. This is heavily evidenced by how monotonous and alike all the "living authentically" stuff is, apparently forgetting that the dirty crust punk who is fucking his boyfriend in the filthy alleyway is actually living pretty authentically.

And people sit here wondering why managing your entire persona as a personal brand from fucking tween years until old age might stress people out. It's fucking bonkers and its BEEN fucking bonkers.

I understand the dangers of anonymity online, but forcing us all out into our real names just results in us faking ourselves being better than we are at all times online. At the very least, behind the facade of pseudo-anonymity, we can actually speak our minds without worry of endless judgment.
posted by deadaluspark at 9:49 AM on May 1, 2018 [12 favorites]

Oh thank god someone wrote this article. I coach a team full of teenagers, and memes are their first language. Moreover everyone seems to have abandoned text-based social media (blogs, facebook, twitter) for snapchat and instagram stories which seem to me like nothing more than meme fountains. I don't understand why they're popular. Old man shakes fist at cloud here!

I'm hoping this "post-authenticity" era is short lived cycle. The cynicism that defined my youth in the 90s was overtaken by the optimism of the 2000s kids, so it could happen again - we could start talking to each other in good faith instead of just mugging for the lulz.
posted by Popular Ethics at 10:01 AM on May 1, 2018 [4 favorites]

The term “fake news” appeared out of next-to-nowhere in November 2016.

When coverage of social media propaganda mills in Eastern Europe, influencing the election, was published
posted by thelonius at 10:04 AM on May 1, 2018 [4 favorites]

Just came here to say that I loved this piece when it came out and I learned a bunch.
posted by danhon at 10:19 AM on May 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

I have a small problem with the idea that just by the fact of a big corp co-opting a concept (in this case, authenticity)

"When McDonald’s boasts about artisanal chicken (complete with “artisan chicken” and “artisan roll”) you know the message has gone awry.”

that it essentially loses all value. If they really have the power to do that, we are actually lucky they don't use that power nefariously. 'Have a McDonalds Harvard burger- have a Burger King Prince (the singer) shake! We can destroy all your institutions!! hahaha!' But it doesn't work that way because the people who care understand the differences. There is also the idea throughout that for something to be 'authentic' it has to be 'unique', but I don't think those concepts were ever meant to be synonymous: You have your edison bulbs and reclaimed wood - my authenticity is fire and sytrofoam chairs. Hopefully nothing bad happens!

All this stuff endlessly spins in on itself even in the article -
"In Spring 2016, designer Demna Gvasalia shocked the fashion press with bootleg “anti-fashion” at Vetements , selling meta-referential hoodies, DHL-branded T-shirts, and reworked secondhand jeans for hundreds, and some thousands, of Euros. Meanwhile, in the hipper echelons of design, we’re back to postmodernism, with 1980s Memphis Group aesthetics and terrazzo replacing Insta’d-out white marble — if the pages of Elle Decoration and graphic design of Chayka’s journalist co-op, Studyhall, is anything to go by)"

No Studyhall is not something to go by unless you are specifically looking for the next trend - and if you are don't get on people for being on-trend. And they sell anti-fashion clothes - you don't find them on the runway, you find them at TJ Maxx, Wal-Mart and places like that.

And fine if you don't want to hitch your wagon to this trendiness and false authenticity - but then why would you complain about this? "Our Instagram feeds professionalised: the quality of photography improved, the captions were strategically wittier. The relationship to our real lives became more complicated."

You mean our 'real lives' are bad photography and banal text? What's the deal with try-hards? But of course they get crap for that too. The time spent editing and not getting enough clicks was ill-spent and the final outcome lead to bullying, to harassment - mostly negative outcomes. So the kids found something that was creating a net negative for themselves and instead of soldiering on and sighing like other generations they did something smart and opted out via memes? Didn't your parents tell you to continue doing the same thing (take sexy photos & bully and harass) but be kind of apologetic about it?

Eh. I think the article probably makes a few good points but I'm not sure that we are truly in a post-authenticity world.
posted by The_Vegetables at 11:07 AM on May 1, 2018 [2 favorites]

That was a fantastic read! Thank you for sharing.
posted by greenhornet at 11:29 AM on May 1, 2018

I liked this section
In consuming these memes — in liking and sharing — the social media user is participating in a moment of commonality. They’re saying, “I am like this too.” These memes are predicated on a recognition of common human similarities.
Meme formats — from this week’s American Chopper dialectic model to now classics like the “Exploding Brain,” “Distracted Boyfriend,” and “Tag Yourself” templates — are by their very nature iterative and quotable. That is how the meme functions, through reference to the original context and memes that have come before, coupled with creative remixing to speak to a particular audience, topic, or moment. Each new instance of a meme is thereby automatically familiar and recognisable. The format carries a meta-message to the audience: “This is familiar, not weird.” And the audience is prepared to know how to react: you like, you respond with laughter-referencing emoji, you tag your friends in the comments.

The format acts as a kind of Trojan horse, then, for sharing difficult feelings — because the format primes the audience to respond hospitably. There isn’t that moment of feeling stuck over how to respond to a friend’s emotional disclosure, because she hasn’t made the big statement directly, but instead through irony and cultural quotation — distancing herself from the topic through memes, typically by using stock photography (as Leigh Alexander notes) rather than anything as gauche as a picture of oneself.
I had a series of anonymous (pseudonymous?) web blogs (tripod! geocities!) from age 18-ish until 28-ish, before I got inculcated into the idea of having a public internet presence instead of a secret hideaway of garden variety angst and love triangle chamber music. It's embarrassing to remember how un-ironic I was about everything, with lots of elliptical elusive allusions to various people. It was almost entirely text (no need for the safety of memes, but also I think I only used images in weird html frame experiments). I didn't tell my real-life friends about the blogs, though some found it anyway and I made internet friends before it was a normal thing. The thought of Instagram and the expectation that I would have a social media for public consumption as a teen or in my drunken 20s is horrifying.
posted by spamandkimchi at 11:43 AM on May 1, 2018 [9 favorites]

Also thanks, this article introduced me to the FB transit meme group (so many thoughts on this as an urban planning researcher)!
posted by spamandkimchi at 11:44 AM on May 1, 2018 [2 favorites]

NUMTOT is one of the reasons I had a hard time quitting Facebook. Meme groups 4 lyfe.
posted by AFABulous at 1:41 PM on May 1, 2018 [2 favorites]

Some of the bits about the rise and fall of hipster authenticism were weird. Like sure, the Edison bulbs are an affectation, but the image showing "they all have the same stools"? I mean, there's gotta be that one sturdy go-to that is cheap and easy, and it makes sense that all of the bars would buy that stool.

"Authentic" doesn't have to take the form of the "quirky" cafe where literally every chair is from a different set.
posted by explosion at 1:58 PM on May 1, 2018

As far as "authenticity" in marketing goes, Mr. Jalopy said it best, way back in 2009:

"Everything you love, everything meaningful with depth and history, all passionate authentic experiences will be appropriated, mishandled, watered down, cheapened, repackaged, marketed and sold to the people you hate."

I have copied that sentence down, along with Emma Lazarus's Statue of Liberty poem, and the bell schedule for my school in every single pocket notebook that I fill up for the last several years.
posted by seasparrow at 2:16 PM on May 1, 2018 [11 favorites]

Kyle Chayka was on last week's Slate Money podcast talking about how authenticity is just another branding trick, and not even in a way that makes sense. (Some bit of market research proclaimed that consumers considered Apple and Amazon two of the most "authentic" brands, whatever the hell that means.)
posted by grandiloquiet at 2:48 PM on May 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

NUMTOTs is one of the reasons I had a hard time quitting Facebook. Meme groups 4 lyfe.

I managed to quit twitter but two things keep me on Facebook:
1. Local socialist organizing
posted by mostly vowels at 4:13 PM on May 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

the use of memes and fake insta as a way to retain privacy while still practicing empathy seems culturally healthy and great. but the end of the piece where it talks about the aesthetic of relying on cultural understanding over factual information, i fear, will end up where most hallucinagenic-inspired dorm room conversations about solipsism do: jumping off a bunk bed to prove you can fly.
posted by wibari at 4:34 PM on May 1, 2018

I mean, there's gotta be that one sturdy go-to that is cheap and easy, and it makes sense that all of the bars would buy that stool.

The problem is the idea that they're buying stools because they're setting up a cafe, instead of gradually acquiring chairs over a period of years from wherever's available because they started out making coffee for themselves and it just kind of grew organically over time.

I mean, sure, you're not going to get that from a coffee shop, but that, I'd argue, is the point. You can't get that kind of local culture from anywhere, depending on where you live, and when people try, it has to become a money-making venture to become 'legitimate'.
posted by Merus at 7:05 PM on May 1, 2018

More on this, from the prehistoric era of 2013:

Games of Truth, by Rob Horning of the New Inquiry.
Social media neatly increase that feeling of the world’s phoniness while providing a means for the sort of self-exposure that combats it. As more behavior seems inauthentic and “performative,” we have greater need to expose ourselves and have our own authenticity vindicated through the embarrassment this causes us.


But do social-media platforms, by making audiences more readily available and making some forms of self-documentation more automatic, strip out the intentionality that makes such self-witnessing critical, that makes it constitutive of a courageous self? That intentionality once marked conceptual artists (or performance artists or any proto-hipster living artist as a lifestyle) as transgressives who saw truth as risk. How much risk is left in it when it is automatic, ubiquitous? The platforms may merely capitalize on that frisson of courage and risk to make using social media more compulsive while containing parrhesia’s subversive potential.


Since parrehesia [sic] is where the compulsion is, social media platforms may be engineered to simulate it: They can be designed to stimulate drama and confrontation (Twitter fights, flame wars — remember those? — and context collapses, etc.) as well as the routine “performative” grooming of established bonds.


To argue that people jeopardize their “real” self in using social media to make a personal brand is to try to stage a truth game, to interpolate people into an authenticity competition. That argument takes people’s ordinary performative discourse online and scrutinizes it as parrhesia. Thus, denying others the right to exist in different contexts, to have different social roles, is always an option available to “trolls” and other people seeking to garner a stronger sense of self. Staging a context collapse starts a truth game that the lower-status person has everything to gain by and relatively little to lose.

So parrhesia in social media yields a self moored by zero-sum games of power and delineated by measurable evidence of influence. This seemingly stable set of procedures for making a self — for playing the game of truth — are the consolation for the dismal, anxious, hyperreflexive sort of self the procedures actually yield.


The potential for parrhesia in social media is thereby circumscribed by some of the same affordances that make the parrhesia possible. Worse, the parrhesia in social media may set individuals against one another in pointless struggles for authenticity while precluding them from uniting politically to fight for shared goals against those remote elites.
posted by runcifex at 8:19 PM on May 1, 2018

On mobile so it's a pain to link, but really recommend "Mediated" by Thomas de Zengotita.
posted by blue shadows at 10:46 PM on May 1, 2018

Strangely, following links in that article, I found out that an old acquaintance passed away last month. Behind public personas and social profiles are people of flesh and blood. Not that I doubted that, but it's easy not to think about.
posted by Kattullus at 4:54 AM on May 2, 2018

So this article is actually quite relevant to the work I've been doing the past couple of months (working for a "content publisher") and about halfway through I was like, OMG I have to send this to our leadership team. I did, and it's literally changed the way we are operating and planning our research on Gen Z. Thanks for posting this--sharing this article may have been the biggest boost I've ever gotten in my career.
posted by Fuego at 1:39 PM on May 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

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