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The Filter of Authenticity

July 22, 2015

There's so much to love about the Internet. This blog wouldn't exist without it, for a start. But the Internet has done a mighty fine job of creating and growing interesting communities around unique and uncommon ideas that otherwise wouldn't have been possible. (see: Reddit and Nerdfighteria) And the impacts of these communities extend outside of the bubble of the Internet, into realms of social activitism, education, entertainment, and wherever else it's beneficial to have the help of large, passionate communities behind an idea.

And very frequently at the center of these communities and movements online, we find what's now become a staple of the online, connected lifestyle: social media. It's no question that we've "emigrated" ourselves into the online communities of social media when we realize that brands are reaching out to us and marketing on social media, celebrities are using them to connect with fans, and if we want to look back into past memories or save new ones, we go to social media before anything else. Like it or not, the idea of an "internet citizenship" is becoming less and less strange every year, and of course it is, because we're quite literally moving bits and pieces of our daily lives online -- first relatioships, then photos, journals, calendars, to-do lists, and eventually entire careers. If the Internet were a country, social media is the residential zone, our homes in the Internet Nation. And because more of our lives are being uploaded onto the Internet, it's also been increasingly important that our identities online -- who we say we are online -- are really who we are.

If this were an online privacy-focused post, I'd delve more into the problems with digital identities here, but I want to take the same topic and approach it from a different angle. Filters.

In social media, in photography, filters are everywhere. We beautify our faces, saturate our colors, contrast our dramatic shots. But are they also squeezing out authenticity from pictures?

While most of the world seems to agree that the social media generally does more good than harm, for those who don't, the argument that comes up most frequenty is one of authenticity -- or the lack therof. They argue that services like Facebook and Instagram allow us to hide behind a digital mask, being someone who we're not in "real life" when we're interacting with other people online. They argue that we can become different people, concealed and protected by the veils of anonymity and distance. And we don't have to look very far to find some evidence why. Take Twitter's trends, Instagram's Discover section, or Facebook's most liked posts and pictures. I'd be hard-pressed to argue that they're the best example of how people would act offline, being a mixed bag of spam and generally inappropriate or offfensive materials. The critics argue that this happens because people are allowed to hide behind anonymity and filters, becoming someone else who's detached from their identity offline. They argue, in other words, that social media creates harmful inauthenticity.

But let's focus on one particular cause of that inauthenticity for now -- photo and video filters, and the self-consciousness that tends to come along with them. Just over a week ago, Casey Neistat, celebrated vlogger and filmmaker, launched a social app that he wishes would solve the problem of inauthenticity. The app, cleverly named Beme (presumably standing for "be me", for exchanging perspectives), is focused on removing everything from the social media experience except the people on it. No filters, no words, no previews, no editing -- just raw photos and videos, sent out as soon as they're taken and only watched once. And he's defintely onto something -- it's the best shot I've seen so far of anyone trying to create a truly authentic, raw social network. But at the same time, I'm growing increasingly doubtful of if completely and true authenticity is really the "point" of social media in the first place. Hear me out.

I'm growing increasingly doubtful of if completely and true authenticity is really the "point" of social media in the first place.

When I open Instagram, I'm not trying to paint a completely authentic and photorealistic picture of my life -- I just want to share something beautiful. When I tweet a witty comment, I don't expect people to think my tweets are all there is to my voice, and people understand that. If social media was created strictly for sharing the most realistic and untouched versions of our lives, it would amount to nothing more than a glorified birth certificate or a passport -- a cold, literal list of things we've done and places we've been to. And while that might be "authentic", it also lacks the element of engagment. While it describes our lives, it doesn't tell as much of a story. It's not appealing, and almost never interesting. If social media focused purely on delivering authenticity and left little room for venturing outside of our real identities, there would be very little point in using social media at all. If I wonder how someone's doing, why don't I just call them? If I want to share how great my vacation's been, why don't I just say "Hey, I'm going great!"? I think we use social media for more than the authentic delivery of our stories. We use them for expression beyond what we can offline.

Ask any professional photographer or filmmaker, and they'll tell you how important fine-tuned editing and careful refinement are to their creative works. Ask any songwriter, and they'll tell you the hundreds of times they go over and change parts of their music to make it more perfect. Heck, ask any author, and they'll be happy to tell you how much of their original, raw writing was cut out and edited to make something more perfect, something that he or she is satisfied with. But would you call a film or a novel inauthentic, just because they weren't single-shot captured and published with no editing? Does the value of The Fault in Our Stars or Selma somehow become less the more filters and edits we do to them?

Would you call a film or a novel inauthentic, just because they weren't single-shot captured and published with no editing? Does the value of The Fault in Our Stars or Selma somehow become less the more filters and edits we do to them?

No, of course not. Because the point of media -- writing, photography, music, and video -- isn't to be true-to-life, never-exaggerated depictions of reality. They're not meant to be a flawless reflection of our lives, but an expression of what we see and feel in them. Not the stories we live in, but the stories we want to tell. And while there's something off about offensive and careless sharing for the sake of popularity, if we limit our voices online to the strictly authentic, we also lose the permission to tell the stories we want to tell, limited to the ones we're already stuck in. But if we have that freedom to be something beyond reality, the photos and words we share can become more than just mirrors for our analog lives. Our lives online might not be photorealistic, but that doesn't mean they aren't any less valuable stories to share. And maybe, in all the filters and the revisions we apply to express ourselves the way we see it, we'll also find that some things can be true without being authentic.