Is It Even Possible to Be an Authentic Person Online?
“People often say my generation values authenticity,” remarks the unnamed narrator of Lauren Oyler’s new novel, Fake Accounts. It’s the kind of statement that begs to be read wryly under most circumstances, including those of Oyler’s narrator — who, in the wake of Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president, has discovered her boyfriend’s clandestine double life as a popular alt-right conspiracy theorist on social media. Eventually, she becomes an online con artist of sorts, too.
Oyler doesn’t have her protagonist put a name to “my generation” until much later. But she doesn’t need to. Millennials — having been formed by both “the unspoiled period that stretched from our birth to the moment our parents had the screeching dial-up installed,” as Oyler’s narrator observes, and by everything that came next — may be uniquely positioned to notice “the ways in which we casually commit fakery ourselves.” And, reflexively, to don an assortment of protective shields that might circumvent such gruesome clarity. Irony, cynicism, fake accounts—it’s all fair game.
Fake Accounts teases out a preoccupation that underlies much of Oyler’s nonfiction and criticism — including a 5,000-word pan of Jia Tolentino’s 2019 essay collection, Trick Mirror, which purportedly crashed the London Review of Books website early last year. Namely, that we are all surveilled and for sale. A tremendous number of us allow this knowledge to shape our constructions of identity, to varying degrees of skill and self-delusion. Factor in a gig-ified labor economy that’s populated by so many monetized and commoditized selves, and what even is authenticity? At what point do you become the bit you’ve committed to? Does it even matter?
GEN: The people want to know: Is authenticity real?
Lauren Oyler: Whether any abstract concepts are real is a higher-level question that I can answer. But I think, from a sort of pragmatic viewpoint, yes. I think that on an individual level, anyone who acts as they feel, without strategizing, is being more authentic than someone who’s not. Even if strategy is sort of subtextual and baked in and they don’t even realize that they’re being quote-unquote “fake.”
How possible is it to be an authentic person online? Not theoretically, but logistically, since we’re hyper-aware of what we’re sharing and how it’s being read?
I think the less you know about the internet, the easier it is. The less you’re aware everybody is watching you, of the possible applications of what you’re doing online, the more authentic you can be. Whether you’ll be perceived as being authentic is another question.
Everything is meta-meta online, so even if you are acting authentically and being your true self, people will accuse you of being a faker, which creates an endless sort of recursive tension. I think it’s a crisis for a lot of people. In my book, the protagonist can be seen as quite unlikeable and difficult. But in her weird, deeply misguided way, she’s trying to test people because she wants to have some way out of this horrible cycle that she’s in. I think she’s constantly disappointed and everybody fails her tests. That’s partially her fault and partially, you know, how the world works.
You write about the relationship between personal branding for the purpose of selling a product and the construction of online personas. What would it look like to opt-out? Is that even possible?
I think people are able to opt-out to a great extent, depending on whether there are consequences and how severe the consequences are. It really depends on the situation. I know plenty of people in my life who are simply not tormented by these questions, who actually find the fact that someone would be sad or despicable. I see that perspective completely.
I think there are innumerable ways to live one’s life. Sometimes it’s a matter of solving a difficult problem, which is to say you feel that there are no other options. How do you find other options? How do you come up with something else? But I’m hesitant to say that there’s no way to opt-out.
In your novel, the narrator’s conspiracy theorist boyfriend likes trying on seemingly innocuous lies in public, purely for the thrill of seeing where the charade leads. It’s kind of a metaphor for the ways that very-online people perform for each other.
I think, generally speaking, everyone involved in the alt-right conspiracy world is quite miserable and has a lot of the worst emotions roiling around inside them. Even if the persona the person is constructing is ostensibly friendly, it’s all about trying to get people to give you something, even if it’s just attention or acknowledgment. When you are constantly trying to impress or please other people, even if it’s in a bizarre way, a lot gets lost. Not just nuance, but also goodness.
There’s certainly an argument to be made about the American political situation and how the government has left a lot of people behind. Sometimes people respond to this in quite creative ways, it isn’t all bad. I think you can see a similar phenomenon play out in the GameStop drama.
That’s a good point, that “people making personalities on the internet” isn’t necessarily about an impulse for bad versus an impulse for good. It’s just weird.
I’m sure you have this experience too, where you’ll be looking at Twitter or Instagram, and the personalities people come up with are clearly false. They’re clearly wrong, but they’re also so banal. A part of the unbelievability is like — if you’re going to come up with something, why are you coming up with that?
Without naming names or being ultra-specific, can you give me an example?
Oh, any number of things. Like taking feminist arguments that are minor and irrelevant to the course of the world just to find something new to yell about in a sort of righteous way. Then there are the more obvious things, like trying to make yourself seem very cool by reading the right books, wearing the right clothes.
There’s been a tendency among public-facing creative workers to show who your friends are and link to various profiles so that anybody who’s looking at Instagram or Twitter — which usually involves making inferences and drawing conclusions — is going to construct a whole social world out of what they see from your photos.
Your social life is a set-piece.
I don’t know how intentional people are, but I think at this point people are very aware of their long-running brands, so they post things that enhance it in some way or another. The result is that everybody is reading each other in a way that you could say is kind of like a conspiracy theorist. And they may see something about you that you don’t necessarily see.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.