The false personas, created lifestyles, attention-seeking humblebrags and empty entitlement of the online world.
We live in the world of the crafted image. Everyone from politicians and celebrities to nobodies on social media seems to have a carefully-curated public persona that only occasionally resembles reality as if the whole world is now caught up in some odd role-playing game where you can be whatever you want to be rather than what you actually are.
I often ponder this when I find myself looking at LinkedIn, which is a cesspit of ego-wanking and shallow boasting even by the standards of social media. LinkedIn is a curious parallel world where no one ever has a job that they do in order to make enough money to pay bills and have a comfortable level of living; no, everyone on LinkedIn has a Career, a Vocation, a job that is entirely entwined with their personal identity even as their descriptions of what they do consist of nothing but buzzwords and management-speak that, once you translate it back into English, is meaningless nonsense describing a pointless job in a worthless corporate business. Well, that’s understandable – we all want to believe that what we do has meaning and significance. The thing that continually fascinates me about that site and its users, beyond the endless humble-bragging, life-affirming bullshit and outright lies that make up 90% of the posts, is the way people talk about their jobs as if their careers are everything – they have their dream job in an industry that they are absolutely passionate about, right up until the point where they change jobs and go to work in a completely unrelated industry, at which point they will barely mention the world that used to be their overriding obsession and now instead focus on their latest venture.
It’s all self-promoting fakery and perhaps on a site that is all about selling yourself to future employers – even as someone starts a new job, we can see them grafting away to make themselves attractive to the next employer. But of course, this sort of fake persona is now everywhere. While there are those few people online who present an unvarnished view of both their personality and their lives, they are few and far between as social media offers a chance for people to be who they want to be rather than who they are. It’s a world that constantly fascinates me because you look at people self-mythologising and wonder just how they get away with it, especially when it is transparently fraudulent. Why are they so rarely called out on their fakery? Well, the reason is obvious I suppose. There is little to gain from exposing the truth behind the lie, especially if you are lying too. Much of the motivation for faking it is to build a fan base of weirdly devoted followers and you can guarantee that anyone who steps out of line and criticises the faker will be immediately howled down and attacked. It’s easier to simply keep your head down in these circumstances.
We see this with the fakers of Instagram – the influencers and wannabe influencers whose entire grift depends on them pushing the idea that they live brilliant, perfect, enviable lives. I live in a part of London that Instagrammers adore because there are a lot of very pretty and photogenic houses and locations here – every weekend, we see them rocking up, photographer in tow, to pose outside other people’s houses. Believe me, it’s something that stops being amusing quite quickly, especially when you find people in your doorway when you are struggling in with bags of shopping. When I first saw this, I assumed it was because social media had democratised the idea of modelling, and that rather amused me – anything that pricks the pompous bubble of the established fashion model world was fine by me. But I realise now that these women – and it’s almost entirely women that we see are not trying to become models, at least not in the way I originally thought. They are trying to become brands and that’s something different. Their brand – and the fame, the money and most importantly the influence – depends entirely on them projecting an image of a life that is enviable. They’re all trying to create an alternative reality that they hope will then become actual reality – the money, the clothes, the car, the house, the exotic holidays every other month, the lifestyle.
Of course, if your pseudo-glamorous lifestyle falters, you can just as easily fall back on victimhood. People love seeing a personality – be it influencer or actual celebrity – suddenly opening up about their terrible struggles in life or deciding to be ‘honest’ – “here’s a picture of me without make-up or retouching”. Call me a cynic, but when I see this, I find it a bit self-serving because by this point, we all know that the person’s followers will flood their post with messages telling them how brave and gorgeous they are – you might get the odd troll, but they’ll be immediately howled down. When people put unvarnished photos online and claim that they have fretted about doing so for ages, it just feels like another cry for attention – and these photos have, of course, all been carefully chosen. Perhaps if they posted photos of the squalid bedsite that they actually live in, that might be more honest – but none of this is about honesty. In fact, these revelations often seem to be used as damage control whenever someone has said or done something stupid, used as a sleight-of-hand distraction from an uncomfortable reality.
Fakery often masks uncomfortable truths that even the faker tries to pretend don’t exist. The homophobic politician who is then caught with rentboys or with gay porn on his laptop is something that has happened so often that it feels like a cliche – show me a raging homophobe who isn’t secretly gay and I’ll be amazed. Similarly, moral campaigners often turn out to be corrupt and exploitative, people who ostentatiously post ‘be kind’ messages on social media are regularly the first to spew absolute hate, vitriol and mockery at people who they personally disapprove of and so on. It’s almost as if this is just performative posturing rather than an actual belief. I do understand that for many people, it is a defence mechanism – saying what you actually think can be very dangerous, especially if you have based your entire identity around a political tribe. It’s easier to just say what you think the people around you – friends, online followers, random strangers – will approve of rather than trying to explain your actual take, which might well be messy and unformed and shifting.
Celebrity culture, of course, has long since mastered this fakery. We see Hollywood actors who are paid millions and live in the sort of luxury that is literally unimaginable for most people raging against capitalism, waving assorted social justice flags and claiming victim status, a pretence that they are just like us even though they move exclusively in elite circles and revel in that lifestyle. Watching Oscar winners raging against the machine even as they flaunt their designer dresses and clutch their hundred-grand goodie bags that they absolutely believe that they deserve to get, you have to marvel at the sort of shamelessness that only comes when you genuinely, unquestionably believe that you are better than everyone else and surround yourself with people who you pay to constantly reinforce that belief. Of course, when you reach that level, tedious reality has long since ceased to exist and their fakery is the direct opposite to that of the influencer – while the fakers of Instagram want to pretend to be part of the elite, the actual elites like to pretend to be men and women of the people – heroic class warriors living in gated communities.
The internet does not reward honesty. We all want to put the best spin on everything (and that includes the people whose chosen personas are that of the angry curmudgeon, as much a cultivated role as any it seems). You can even argue that every time we dress up for a night out or change our style, we are reinventing ourselves. Lots of people bluff their way through life because it is the only way to cope. People, in reality, are messy, confused, contradictory individuals and most of us are just trying to navigate an increasingly chaotic and unstable world as best we can. If a fake persona helps, then by all means go for it. But always remember that this is an act and at some point, tedious reality is going to bite.
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