Social media filters reality, undermines authenticity

by | Nov 6, 2015 | Opinion

Jennifer Berry
Executive Editor

I remember the days when we knew where our advertising was coming from.

As a child of the ‘90s, I was used to seeing ads plastered on billboards, slipped into magazines, and dancing across my TV screen. Product placements were everywhere on TV and in film, but those were relatively obvious too – the can of Coke in the protagonist’s hand didn’t end up there by accident and that was fine.

But, sometime in the early 2000s, when personal blogs took off as a means of expression, brands realized they were sitting on an untapped marketing opportunity. Soon, the resourceful fashion-obsessed style blogger who had her boyfriend shoot her daily outfits in makeshift photo shoots was receiving free clothes directly from brands and wearing them on her blog.

Before long, well-trafficked blogs were rife with advertising, both obvious, in the form of banner ads, and native, tucked away in affiliate links (a way for bloggers to earn a commission off the sale of the products they’re wearing). Today, a person can become a web entrepreneur using social media only, earning dollars for clicks directly from their Instagram account.

One web star is Essena O’Neill, a 19-year-old Australian model who made headlines last week by announcing that she was going to expose the truth behind her images, declaring that “social media is not real life,” and re-editing photo captions to explain what really went into that perfectly candid-looking bikini shot.

There it was, in bold letters: THIS IS NOT REAL LIFE. The web went wild! She was celebrated as brave, and I don’t doubt that she is. But the question on my mind is: we already knew that, right? How many regular Joes who aren’t paid for posts are even authentic on social media anymore, using Facebook and Instagram as a way of building their “personal brands” by censoring and filtering their true selves into oblivion?

Don’t get me wrong; I miss the true authenticity of trailblazing style bloggers. I was an early adopter. I loved checking out what real girls were wearing for inspiration. I also adore fashion magazines.

But what appealed to me most about style blogs was the realness that set them apart. If I wanted high fashion, superior production value, a slick editorial feel, and a healthy dose of fantasy, I knew where to look – fashion magazines and websites. For real-life inspiration from girls I could relate to, I turned to personal style blogs. I do that less and less these days.

At their inception, social media was an afterthought to the blog itself, an add-on that could potentially help the blogger get more followers or traffic.

Now people are sometimes bypassing the blog completely and going straight to Instagram to build their personal brand. Take “fitness star” and queen of the belfie, yes, that’s butt selfie, Jen Selter.

She’s racked up more than 7 million Instagram followers, has appeared in Vanity Fair, and reportedly has made $50,000 from a single sponsored post. She never had a blog. Or any formal fitness training, for that matter. But she marketed herself on social media and now earns income for butt pix.

These days, native advertising and affiliate links pollute even the smallest of blogs, and the top echelon of bloggers run sites with editorial content that looks more like than a free WordPress site, many pulling in more than a million dollars a year and boasting full-time staff members.

With the growth of blog and social media-based businesss, the authenticity that defined those very web entrepreneurs has been lost.

The smoke and mirrors of the fashion industry that were decidedly absent from style blogs when they first came to be are now as present on social media as they are in a glossy print magazine or couture fashion show.

While I can’t fault bloggers for embracing entrepreneurial opportunities, I mourn the loss of the very thing that made bloggers so special to begin with – they were real.