On the “Fakeness” of Social Media

Yesterday I came across a very insightful post on r/MakeupRehab, titled “A thought on the fakeness of Instagram…” It’s a long post, so I won’t quote it in full, but the writer argues that successful Instagrammers like her sister, women whose posts feature them “in trendy places in even trendier outfits,” perpetuate an internalized misogyny that filters down to the social-media accounts of ordinary women:

It’s so absolutely drilled in our heads that we have to be PERFECT at all times. On social media, we never post when we get dumped. We never show ourselves when we splurge on makeup because we had a bad day. We never show when we fail that exam, or have a fight with our partners, or are so depressed we can’t leave bed. We never show ourselves eating that third bag of cheetos on the couch. We never show when we fail. And we never show ourselves listening to our favorite songs or holding our loved ones or laughing with a friend and feeling something that no money or makeup or followers could EVER make us feel and we don’t even NEED to document the moment because it’s just here, right now, and it’s REAL.

To my own surprise, I found myself pushing back a bit:

Needless to say, it’s disturbing that girls and women feel pressured to present a glossy, sanitized persona on social media. But it also bothers me that criticism of that pressure often takes the form of “we should be totally raw and honest ALL THE TIME.” That strikes me as a holdover from an earlier era of the internet: the overshare culture of the 2000s and early 2010s, the xoJane “It Happened to Me” series, the LiveJournal/Emily Gould/Julia Allison (remember her?) brand of confessionalism. Back in 2015, Slate ran a great story on the “first-person industrial complex,” the journalistic model that incentivizes knee-jerk, ideally topical self-exposure,” often at the expense of the writer’s professional reputation and personal life. Yes, that’s the other extreme of online self-commodification, but the assumption behind it is widespread: that a social-media account should provide a full, often unflattering, picture of a life. This is its own flavor of misogyny: the idea that women should package their emotions, traumas, and mistakes for public consumption. When was the last time you heard a man described as “fake” because he didn’t post about eating that third bag of Cheetos? “Fake” is a gendered criticism.

I’ve mentioned in passing that I deal with various mental-health shit on a daily basis. And yes, I do think it’s important for people to be more open about mental illness so that we can collectively reduce the stigma attached to it. But I also think that principle extends only so far. If providing daily Instagram updates about your depression level helps you cope, then by all means do it; I’m not arguing that you shouldn’t. But providing those updates wouldn’t be good for my mental health, and isn’t that what I’m trying to preserve in the first place? I don’t see why should I feel guilty about that.


When I follow someone on Instagram, I take for granted that there are things they share with their best friends, romantic partners, and doctors that they’re not going to share with me, a rando on the internet. And I’m totally fine with this. Why shouldn’t I be? Social media has blurred the boundary between person and persona, but it’s the viewer’s responsibility to stay conscious of that boundary, not the Instagrammer’s responsibility to go live when she’s crying over a breakup. If we don’t reveal everything about ourselves to everyone we encounter in real life, why should we feel obligated to do so online?

All that said, the people I enjoy following on Instagram are people who offer unglamorous glimpses of their day-to-day life. That’s what I offer, too, because that’s all I have to offer. If someone I follow starts  airbrushing their selfies or shilling diet products, that’s an unfollow from me. But I’ve never resented anyone for not sharing more of her problems. Peeking into other people’s lives through social media is a privilege, not a right, and I think it’s possible—and preferable—to strike a balance between Jezebel-circa-2010 oversharing and Kylie-circa-2017 glossy perfection. Really, though, I’m curious to know what others think! How do you prefer to share your life on social media?

And because this post doesn’t have nearly enough photos, here’s the metallic blue lip I put together before showering last night, after I’d removed most of my other makeup. I patted Topshop eyeshadow in Holograph over NYX Velvet Matte lipstick in Midnight Muse, and I love the intergalactic-disco effect, though I fear an intergalactic disco is the only place I could wear this look. Know of any good ones?

15 thoughts on “On the “Fakeness” of Social Media

  1. Thanks for this post! I totally agree. Instagram in particular isn't somewhere I necessarily expect to see the bland or ugly side of people's lives, since it's about photos. If someone is taking a photo, it's probably because they think something looks interesting or attractive (not necessarily both). Besides which, the people I follow on Instagram, at least, post plenty of photos of friends, family, pets, ordinary food, etc. I think it has to do with themes of accounts as well. My Instagram isn't meant to document my life, really, it's linked to my beauty blog, so I'm mainly going to post makeup related things, not my depression or a photo of me cuddling with my husband. (I get that it's different if someone is purporting to document their real life, but then people are probably following them for the escapist fantasy anyway.) And because I assume my followers, like me, enjoy looking at somewhat aesthetically pleasing images, I'll take a photo of my makeup on a white surface rather than on my grungey beige carpet or whatever. Is that fake? Shrug. So like you, I favor a middle road when it comes to this kind of critique.Also: LOVE THE LIPSTICK.


  2. Looking back at my post, I wonder if our approach to social media has to do with our age. I'm way too old to feel inadequate because some blogger I've never met posts nothing but peonies and Chanel bags and perfect flatlays on marble countertops. But if I were 15 instead of 29, who knows how I'd feel? Not for the first time, I'm grateful that I didn't grow up in the age of Instagram.And yes: Instagram is literally about images. I like to look at pretty things and I assume my followers do too. If someone posts a photo of a beautiful dessert, I don't conclude that she eats nothing but beautiful desserts, or that she's HORRIBLY MISREPRESENTING HERSELF by not posting the unattractive bowl of cereal she ate earlier. It's really no deeper than that.


  3. I was 15 when Facebook became A Thing for the general population – which is young enough to apparently spend hours every day posting inane statuses, but old enough to know that social media is a curated presentation. People want to share the best sides of themselves. Social media is a really easy way to control your image, something we don't always get to do the way they want in real life.I'm almost embarrassingly open about my life, but even I don't want to post about my less-than glorious moments. I really don't think I need to post a picture of me crying at work alongside a picture of my supper in order to provide an authentic image. I also would argue that lots of people do share the moments of love and laughter on their social media accounts. On my Facebook, I share pictures of me with my friends and family. On my personal Instagram, I share a little slice of my life. On my beauty blog, I post about beauty and sometimes the other stuff that fills my days. None of these are all of me. Nor are they trying to be.I think you're right that it's the responsibility of the viewer to examine social media critically. And because of the rise of social media at the same time we're learning about it, we aren't teaching people about what it really is.


  4. I feel like this connects to my long-standing feeling of disconnection from the notion of \”being yourself.\” Which part? Are there people who can just externalize their interior experience of being human and call it a day? It's not just about hiding or showing the ugly parts of one's life–if I prioritized \”being myself\” over other goals of human interaction, I might discuss my insecurities more, but I would also probably sing a lot to everybody, and I don't actually think my friends and coworkers want to hear the constant rotation of songs playing in my head. I'm very interested in being a truthful person, but I also aspire to be compassionate and witty and interesting and helpful, and reaching toward any of those things means putting in an effort, making choices, and reaching for something beyond my first thought. That said, I'm not on Instagram, and it seems like many people on Tumblr are more than happy to post about their mental health struggles, bad habits, and despair, so I might not be picking up on the full context of this discussion.


  5. Yeah, I totally agree with you that there's a difference between crafting a perfect image and choosing to share some things and not others. I generally assume that social media accounts are a curated portion of someone's life, not the whole thing. My blog instagram account is most beauty related even though that's a small percentage of my life, and my personal instagram has mostly pictures of my baby and my cats. Of course my baby looks adorable and happy in the pictures – I don't take photos of my baby crying, much less post them (um, unless they are extra hilarious). I think the problem is when someone assumes that a social media acount is an accurate representation of someone's full life. That may be true, rarely, but it's the exception. One of the sayings I picked up from therapy at some point was \”don't compare your insides to someone else's outsides\” – it's kind of trite, but it's also true.


  6. \”But providing those updates wouldn't be good for my mental health, and isn't that what I'm trying to preserve in the first place? I don't see why should I feel guilty about that.\”This is me.I go into Instagram expecting that people won't share all of their lives as well. If everyone does that, I will leave asap. That won't be good for my mental health, too.–Rae


  7. I personally never use \”fake\” to describe anything, because I inherently believe no one can fully access the \”truth\” about anyone, so essentially everyone is \”fake\” and very edited. We compartmentalise our personality, what we choose to show to our partner, our friends, our colleague, so naturally that extends to strangers/followers on the Internet. I actually despise the \”raw honesty\” type of content, I'm even more annoyed if it materialises in the form of paid content. eg: Compiled raw Tumblr poetry turned into a book, BUT I BUY THEM STILL because #support.My online presence is heavily edited and I prefer it that way. It's a mix of my hipser-esque tendencies, love for vsco filters and snippets of my life. Not many people know I love makeup actually, so some are surprised by the swatch and flat lay posts on my feed when they see itI :p


  8. I guess that means I was in late college when Facebook became open to everyone? I joined in 2005 in my first semester of college, yikes. For most of my undergrad years, Facebook was a lot more raw and confessional than it is now. People would write these really emo statuses about being heartbroken and stuff. Now it feels a bit more superficial and I use it a lot less. (Much of my first romantic relationship was conducted over Facebook messaging. Ugh, the cringe.)I was confused about that Reddit poster's assertion that people don't share moments of holding their loved ones or laughing with a friend, because lots of people share those things! I definitely err on the side of keeping my friends and family off my instagram because I'm kind of private about personal relationships, but that doesn't mean I'm shallow or fake or whatever.For some reason, I've never felt the need to have two different Instagrams. I think I'd probably have more followers if I used one account exclusively for beauty, but meh, I'm too lazy for that. And I'd probably end up posting from the wrong account half the time, anyway.


  9. I think you're picking up on the context just fine! It does seem like social media has become compartmentalized, with Tumblr for more confessional posts and Instagram for pretty photos, but I don't mind having that built-in divide. And I agree completely that \”being yourself\” isn't as self-evident a concept as people seem to think. We all have public and private selves, and that's kind of what it means to live in society.


  10. That's a good saying to keep in mind! I can't help but wonder what sort of person assumes that Instagram provides a full picture of anyone's life. Certainly the younger you are, the more susceptible you are to that habit of thought, which is why it's so important that kids learn how to think critically and deconstruct advertising and other media messages.


  11. Agreed! People have every right to share their mental-health struggles if that helps them, but I have the right to unfollow them, too. I find it triggering to read a lot about other people's depression and anxiety unless they're my close friends, and I assume that others feel the same way, which is why I don't post a lot about my mental health on this blog.


  12. I'm not terribly open about my makeup addiction or blogging habits, either! I don't actively try to hide the existence of my blog, but I don't mention it to, say, my advisors or people I meet at conferences. Frankly, I don't think most people I know would be at all interested! So why should I inflict my very niche obsession on them? Better to talk about it with those who share it.


  13. It was the summer of 2007 when I joined, and I was a \”late\” holdout amongst my friends. I remember that my city and high school didn't exist on there for a while, so everyone set it to the one city in the province that FB recognized and some random high school in Georgia with a similar-ish name to ours. Ah, memories. I have a personal Instagram mostly because I want to follow my family and friends, but am weirdly private about my public blog! I do have some friends that stumbled across my blog IG (actually, my SIL found it an hour ago) and follow it, but I don't volunteer that it exists. I don't post much on my personal IG, even though I have it.


  14. Thank you for this post. I particularly loved the line, \”'Fake' is a gendered criticism,\” because it cuts right at the heart of the differential expectations and norms levied on women (and particularly women who identify as POC, queer, non-binary, etc.) in social media – an arena that passes itself off as a neutral or depoliticized reflection of our life, but that is of course infused with its own politics and power dynamics. The result seems to be an impasse that emerges out of the expectation to share our \”true\” selves and the disjuncture that only a certain (white, cis, neurotypical, able-bodied, straight…I could go on) kind of true self counts. The social expectation that only a highly curated kind of truth matters underscores how social media \”platforms\” are not simply flat surfaces on which to present images and text, but are highly racialized and gendered realms that reproduce forms of misogyny, racism, xenophobia, etc. I really appreciate your nuanced approach to the issue, and the fact that you don't fall back on the argument that \”It's your choice to post whatever you want to post.\” It's not about choice, or if it is, that's not the part that shows us something interesting about the world we live in. It's about what guides and shapes those choices, and what gives them weight and consequence, and how these factors operate in a way that we often aren't equipped to notice or critique. That is to say – thank you for your thoughtful critique!


  15. And thank *you* for your thoughtful comment! (Sorry it took me a couple of days to respond: I've been out of town.) You've gotten to the heart of what bothers me about Glossier: it's makeup and skincare to enhance the ~real you~, provided the \”real you\” is skinny, cis, under 25, and blessed with naturally good skin and full eyebrows. To me, that feels more dishonest than the full-on Instagram look, which is at least frank about its artifice. But also, who says we have to be honest all the time? Honesty about every aspect of one's life is itself a privileged position. It's funny, I'd never realized that \”fake\” was a gendered insult until I wrote this post. I tried to think of any time when I'd heard a man described as \”fake,\” and I couldn't. \”Fake\” implies a total, almost ontological dishonesty: it's not that you're saying or doing something misleading, it's that you yourself, as a person, are inherently misleading. But of course women exist in a society that requires them to muffle or tamp down certain aspects of themselves, so what does it mean to be \”real\” in those conditions?


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