Pin It

Is the internet the only place we can truly be ourselves?

For years, critics have railed against the inauthenticity of social media – but for most of us, the internet actually facilitates self-discovery

Back in the day, my Tumblr was an aesthetically unappealing blend of the platform’s dominant subcultures: pale grunge, twee, boho, pastel. I’d reblog an image of an orange and pink sunset and then, without missing a beat, repost a grainy, disposable photo of some graffiti boldly proclaiming ‘GRUNGE IS NOT DEAD’. It was chaotic, but what 14-year-old’s hormone-addled brain isn’t chaotic?

On Tumblr – and on the internet more broadly – aesthetic incoherence and experimentation were accessible and fun. But in reality, the opposite was true. There were social constraints: at school, you risked belittlement and ostracisation if your cultural tastes deviated from the ‘norm’. There were material constraints too: I didn’t live remotely close to an American Apparel store and couldn’t have afforded to buy that pleated tennis skirt even if I did. And in any case, after a week I would have ditched the skirt and pivoted to pining after a Peter Pan collar dress instead. On Tumblr, I was free to dabble with different ‘aesthetics’, trying them on for size and seeing what fit.

With this in mind, I genuinely think Tumblr had a positive impact on my teenage self. Of course, it had its glaring pitfalls – namely all the pro-ana content and posts which glamourised self-harm – but when it was good, Tumblr was a space where I could gently tease out my personality and figure out what I liked and didn’t like.

According to a new study, one-fifth of Gen Z do not like to show their “true personality” online, while 55 per cent often use social media to make their lives appear “more exciting”. This research chimes with phrases which, by now, are trite and cliched: à la “social media isn’t real life” or “nobody is posting their failures”. But, somewhat paradoxically, the study also found that 58 per cent of Gen Z thought social media is the “only place they can truly be themselves”.

It’s been over ten years since I first joined Tumblr, but I still fall into the camp which finds it easier to be ‘myself’ online. I’ll fire off opinions with all the confidence of a 50-year-old dialling into a radio show to complain about potholes, but in real life, if you ask me my opinion on literally anything, I’ll usually wait for someone else to chime in and then fervently agree with whatever they said. I’ll be liberal with likes on Instagram but spend ten minutes debating if I should tell that girl at the bar that I like her shoes (I almost never do because I assume she’ll think I’m weird for saying so).

On the other hand, maybe it’s erroneous for me to say I feel more ‘myself’ online. Maybe what I really mean is that I’m at peace with the fact that there’s no such thing as a ‘true’ self. Humans are inherently incoherent and messy and often don’t make sense, but this is at odds with the pervasive narrative on the internet that perpetuates a false dichotomy between the ‘authenticity’ of real life and the ‘fakeness’ of social media. Just look at Instagram accounts like @celebface which ‘expose’ celebrities who Photoshop their pictures, or trends which see influencers juxtapose ‘posed’ and ‘unposed’ photos of themselves, or the hugely popular app BeReal, which markets itself as “your chance to show your friends who you really are, for once.”

All these discussions about ‘being yourself’ on social media take issue with the idea that we alter our behaviours when we know we’re being perceived – but they seem to forget that we do this in real life, too. Whomst among us has not changed out of a pair of joggers stained with pasta sauce before leaving the house? Or dabbed concealer under their eyes before joining a morning Zoom meeting? Or washed their hair before going to the pub? And most of us would agree that we’re slightly different versions of ourselves depending on who we’re with – be it a partner, friend, colleague, or relative – but few of us would suggest that this makes us inherently fake.

Everything is curated online; both mechanically – selection, edit, upload – and philosophically – the mediation of a screen, the performance of identity” – Olivia Yallop

“The debate about the fetishisation of ‘authenticity’ has been going on for a while, and I don’t think it’s a conversation with much value,” says Olivia Yallop, author of Break the Internet.Everything is curated online; both mechanically – selection, edit, upload – and philosophically – the mediation of a screen, the performance of identity. Even the appearance of artlessness is an effect in of itself – look at the way that influencers post ‘Instagram versus reality’ carousels.”

Of course, we should oppose surveillance culture on social media. As James Greig wrote on Dazed earlier this year: “Because the possibility of being surveilled is now ever-present, we start to modify our own behaviour. We become inhibited, we self-censor, we begin to view ourselves as though looking from the outside.” But on the other hand, I don’t embody my personality most when I’m alone. It’s when I’m with – and, yes, perceived by – other people. It’s like that riddle about whether a falling tree makes a noise if there’s no one around to hear it. Being perceived has its drawbacks, sure – it’s why people say ‘dance like no one is watching!’ – but we do need to be perceived sometimes, to bring out the facets of ourselves that only exist when we’re with other people. You can’t be a “funny person” if there’s no one to laugh at your jokes, after all.

Plus, there isn’t a clear divide between the ‘online me’ and the ‘offline me’ – each side bleeds into the other. It actually makes perfect sense that I use the internet as an outlet for unhinged posting as someone who’s pretty quiet IRL, in the same way my more outgoing friends perhaps don’t feel the need to prattle on on the internet as much. Research backs up this theory: in 2017 social psychologists Nicole Krämer and Felix Reer found that introverts were able to ‘compensate’ for their weaker offline social skills by forming friendships and expressing themselves more freely online.

So maybe it’s time to put the ‘social media is fake’ argument to bed. As Yallop says: “I’d argue that there is no such thing as inauthenticity, especially online. It’s all a performance anyway. The rhetoric of ‘authentic versus inauthentic’ is more fake to me than a teenager using a filter.