An Analysis Of Selfies And Their Relation To Crystal Abidin’s (2018) Concept, ‘porous Authenticity’

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‘Does my ego look big in this?’

Mobile technologies and the widespread production and sharing of information in virtual communities introduced new frontiers of human communication, allowing visual images to emerge as a dominant form of social interaction. Meaningful to interpersonal communication and capable of provoking a range of responses, selfies are the most intimate and complex form of visual communication and can form connections with audiences. Therefore, its usability and adaptability to influencers are substantial in creating an authentic image to present to their followers. Porous authenticity and its relationship to the self-image is explored primarily in two ways. How influencers present their ‘real’ identity on social media and how they manipulate the perceptions an audience may have for the selfie producer, bringing forth notions of social desirability to cultivate a positive impression.

The ‘unfiltered’ me: The rise of the Instagram

Selfies are a popular communicative tool especially among friendship circles to express specific ideas and emotions to a greater clarity than any other communicative form. Hefner (1990) states there are “high degrees of intriguing ambiguity and multi-layered meanings to selfies that make them a combination of game and puzzle, adding further to their attractiveness” thus their symbolic representation produces or provokes meanings of a recognisable self to an audience (Hefner, 1990). Due to this, influencers are exploring a more ‘authentic’ and ‘more real’ version of themselves, their industry and their lives instead of the more polished Instagram aesthetic that has previously swamped social media platforms.

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Since 2011, young girls have been producing Finsta’s, a combination of the words “fake” and “Instagram” which are cultivated for a smaller, exclusive audience. Unlike Rinsta’s, “real” Instagram accounts, Finstas present a more unfiltered digital self (Pirani, 2019). The discourses surrounding these private accounts have allowed influencers to make Finstas more public and accessible to a wider audience. This, in turn, has helped them present a more authentic self-image and convince their audience they are part of an exclusive community for having access to their secondary account.

Australian beauty influencer, Shani Grimmond’s selfies on her Finstagram account in comparison to her Rinstagram reveal that social media influencers have been creating Finstagrams to document a more ‘relatable’ self, deliberately making their photographs worse to appear candid and continuing to obtain personal and financial gains. As evident, self-images on her main account are more staged, deliberate and implement tactic labour while self-images on her secondary account are seen as a more authentic self-representation.

This sense of cross-platforming allows followers who have access to an influencers multi-layered and multi-faceted personality, across different accounts, platforms and discourses, to assess and evaluate how genuine the persona is. The laborious detective work that is undertaken by audiences, not only reveals that they are becoming more media savvy with their consumption of influencer content but entices them to follow the feedback loop across the front stage of social media and the backstage of real-life (Abidin, 2018).

Employing porous authenticity through influencers’ secondary accounts, these microcelebrities have managed to challenge the affordances of social media platforms, the expectations on influencers, the camera gaze and representations of authenticity (Lorenz, 2019).

‘Poor’ me: Getting real with the lowlight reel

A key communicative aspect of the selfie is the idea that producing and sharing them is less for personal gratification and more so based on the manipulation of one’s impressions that are had on the selfie producer (Benedek & Veszelski, 2016, p. 307). This social desirability and intention to impress has seen social media posts becoming specific, often heavy, personal essays, revealing extremely personal information that would usually be reserved for their private lives. Influencers, in particular, have been observed interrupting their usual feeds with these type of posts, Carrie Battan (2019) describing them as the “getting real” moments or “lowlight reels.”

For many influencers, “getting real” posts may include personal experiences on mental health and well-being. This is apparent in Essex gym influencer, Sophie Butler’s Instagram account. In an aspirational and detailed Instagram post, she discusses with her audience her recent struggles with mental health and how she is attempting to overcome it. This revelation of a more authentic self to her audience offers a moment of relatability, however, many ignore that inconvenience and occasional distress is “an occupational hazard of life online” (Battan, 2019). Documenting anxiety and demotivation from external factors has become easier than addressing the consuming platform in which influencers make their career and commercialise the lowlight reel.

Furthermore, most influencers are using the “getting real” moment to leverage insecurity for profit (Battan, 2019). In the above case, Butler has openly discussed her tribulations to draw her audience’s attention, however, still presenting a polished and staged mirror selfie, has tagged her sponsors, activewear brands, Gym Shark Women and We Are Ivy Park thus changing the context of the post. Although Butler continuously suggests in her posts that she has a more genuine and authentic life outside of social media, she applies tacit labour to build rapport with her audience and convince them that she identifies with them and their struggles.

This confessional booth style of posting allows influencers to connect to their audience through a mutual understanding of life challenges and often offers a sense of comfort for the viewer. With the implementation of porous authenticity, it is easy for influencers to put on a ‘poor me’ or ‘I’m just like you’ act while still presenting a well put together version of themselves online which audiences will find believable and socially acceptable.

Behind the Scenes: Staging Versus Spontaneity

Selfies are a communicative act of deliberate self-documentation, “created now for the future self to consume” (Benedek & Veszelski, 2016, p. 306). This intentionality of the selfie has been argued by media scholars and researchers to include staging as an integral element to its production. However, American writer, Tavi Gevinson (2019) states that influencing is now about relatability, with audiences preferring to see candid and behind-the-scenes content. Resultingly, Influencers are displaying contrived authenticity and self-awareness in their behind-the-scenes selfies, often putting more thought into them than their formalised selfies.

The influencer content aesthetic on social media is transitioning from pristine, high-quality images to simultaneously haphazard, spontaneous, raw footage (Abidin, 2018, p89). This is unmistakable in German beauty influencer and YouTuber, Naomi Jon’s, BTS selfies on her Instagram account via her highlights. Her staged and well-prepared content interwoven with her unscripted BTS content create ‘a form of digital storytelling’ (Koliska & Roberts, 2015, p. 1676). Followers who understand the context of these playful BTS selfies can read into the messages that influencers embed into their selfies thus creating a connection with the audience (Abidin, 2016, p. 13). In Jon’s example, her BTS selfies on her Instagram highlights contain either internet memes or humorous ‘relatable’ moments she experiences in order to seem more authentic to her audience. Although the beauty influencer’s Instagram posts present a stylised and effortful version of herself, Jon’s Instagram highlights appear more natural and unscripted, letting her followers explore a self that is usually hidden.

Furthermore, the affordances of Instagram stories allow users to post various content for 24 hours without long term consequences. However, Instagram highlights give users the option to save their stories so their audience can view their stories after 24 hours. Using the above example, influencers who save their “fun selfies”, “ugly selfies” or “more authentic selfies” to their Instagram highlights suggests a level of trust between the influencer and audience thus enhancing the influencer’s authenticity that the audience perceives (Abidin, 2016, p. 6).

Influencers utilising behind-the-scenes selfies present a less than attractive self for their audiences that is open to criticism. Porous authenticity and the type of vulnerability that is displayed is interesting to consider when investigating how far influencers will go to construct a genuine identity online.

‘Get my good side’: The significance of Meet and Greets

Selfies capture significant life moments, particular ideals around social relationships and reflect upon individuals’ cultural and contextual shared meanings. The expression of oneself through clothes, the physical setting and the overall style that is framed in a selfie conveys a particular public image that has the potential to gain social reward (Drenten, 2012, p. 8). However, in an influencer context, this can become repetitive and could result in a loss of social credibility from their audience. Therefore, ‘Meet and Greets’, and the selfies that occur during them, have proven to be successful for influencers to heighten their authenticity with their followers.

The follower and influencer selfie dynamic that exists when meeting an influencer in real life is affective and authentic. Selfies that are taken with an influencer become “visual artefacts” that act as a witness and as evidence of “being there” at an exclusive event and having interacted in physical proximity (Koliska & Roberts, 2015. p. 1672). Furthermore, Meet and Greets, allow followers to feel acknowledged on digital estates and in physical spaces thus encouraging them to be more enthusiastic and engaged during the next physical influencer encounter to increase their chances of being on camera (Abidin, 2017, p. 8). A recent Meet and Greet with Australian beauty influencer, Michael Finch, reveals that influencers will take selfies with fans as a form of closeness.

With the increasing demand for follower engagement through Meet and Greets, “audience commodity” has allowed influencers to appear authentic without intensive effort. Actors in participatory culture contribute to the influencer economy by creating and evaluating content (Arvidsson & Bonini, 2016, p. 922). With consideration for the example above, the fan has produced a selfie with Michael Finch and added value to it by posting it to Instagram, tagging him and adding a personal caption addressing her positive experiences with the beauty influencer. As a result, he is perceived as authentic to his viewers through the mediated perspective of a follower rather than going through the digital labour required to appear genuine.

Influencers who decide to host Meet and Greets and similar events, reveal a genuine identity outside of digital space. However, those who take selfies with their followers often create positive interactions and demonstrate a type of porous authenticity so believable that most of the work is done for them through the followers they meet.

‘Love this for you’: Commercial selfies

Apart from identity formation and communication, selfies, in the right context, can provide an outlet for brands to promote their products and services via the influencer image. An influencer’s ability to subtly shift the tastes, desires and behaviours of their audience allows them to transform their self-images into a commodity that sells a commodity. In a self-absorbed social media discourse where selfies allow for richness, playfulness and competitiveness as well as jealousy and frustration, digital audiences are more compelled to copy the behaviours of others (Benedek & Veszelski 2016, p. 312).

Furthermore, the removal of the default chronological order of Twitter and Instagram has forced brands and influencers to consider new strategies to amplify the reach of their content. Therefore, the success of a post is now measured by the number of engagements it gets within the first few minutes of it being posted (Abidin, 2018, p. 81).

Abidin’s research on influencer commercial selfies reveals that “an ecology of selfies work across different platforms” demonstrating that influencers curate distinct types of selfies on each social media platform to convey messages and gauge various audience responses (Abidin, 2017, p. 9). Each social media platform offers influencers a unique way of presenting themselves and promoting brands. A notable example of this is Australian beauty influencer, Lily Brown’s selfies promoting Bondi Sans products and experiencing them first-hand on her Instagram and Snapchat. Brown’s pristine selfie and captioned with a lengthy and personal testimonial on her Instagram post encourages audiences to believe she genuinely invested in the product while her Snapchat inferred selfie adds a layer of authenticity due to the informal and impermanent nature of the platform.

Brown was selected as part of a “multi-Influencer campaign” to advertise the two tanning products with the freedom to customise and personalise her Instagram advertisements that would appeal to her followers and appear the most authentic and believable. Snapchat, in particular, makes the products exposure seem effortless and subconscious (Abidin, 2016, p.10). Additionally, both examples have two focal points that make the selfie authentic, the product being held in the foreground and towards the centre of the image and the beauty influencers tanned skin in the middle ground, presenting the results of the product when used.

Porous authenticity is used in commercial selfies to first convince the audience that the influencer is genuine in order to convince them that the product they are selling is genuine too. Resultingly, influencers will employ different platforms, camera techniques and captions to ensure their selfie is engaging enough to be a successful advertisement.

The selfie: More than meets the front-facing camera

The global trend of selfies in its various discourses on social media and its comprehensive uses by a plethora of influencers produce compelling forms of understanding, decoding and connecting to the self and its image. As explored, Porous authenticity is tightly interwoven throughout the multiple processes of selfie creation, the platform it is posted on and the type of audience it reaches.


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