YouTube, Instagram, and False Authenticity

Hello, everyone! I recently stumbled across a YouTube video about a YouTuber/Instagrammer who goes by the name of Simply_Kenna and CozyKitsune. As a fan of YouTube drama, I was immediately sucked into the tale of a girl who built an enormous following off of cutesy aesthetics and an obsession with trendy pop-culture, and then faced huge backlash from her followers for several scandals. Here’s the video, for context:

The video parodies some of Kenna’s idiosyncrasies while also giving context to her many “scandals.” I put quotes around scandals because in the grand scheme of things, they’re silly and insignificant. I’m all for petty YouTube drama, but a lot of Kenna’s scandals seem to revolve around behaviors that I’ve found to be pretty common for all YouTube and Instagram “influencers.”

For example, one of Kenna’s scandals centered around her using a Buddhist head as a planter, which many Buddhists pointed out was disrespectful. Kenna handled the whole situation pretty childishly but then forgot about it and soon stopped practicing Buddhism. Another scandal involved Kenna tattooing what she claimed to be original sketches on her body, then admitting that she had unconsciously plagiarized them. Again, she was called out for this and didn’t handle the situation very maturely.

Her biggest scandal, however, involved her two apology videos. She created the first one as a way of addressing her past issues with Buddhism and plagiarism, but the video itself came across as self-important and insincere posturing (where have we seen this before?), so she made a second video, which was well-received by her followers. Here are the two videos:

It soon turned out, however, that Kenna’s second apology video had been completely scripted by an anonymous fan who later posted about the scam on a gossip thread.

Now, there are a lot of reasons to dislike Kenna. She’s a pretentious weaboo who bandwagons on popular trends and is obnoxiously obsessed with Disney. All of her  flaws can be found detailed on this extensive thread dedicated to her on PULL, which is a gossip site about Instagrammers and YouTubers. I agree that she comes across as annoying and unlikeable, but one of the most frequent attacks against her is her lack of “authenticity.”

What exactly is authenticity, and how does it apply to Instagram and YouTube? There are several definitions of the word “authentic,” but these two definitions feel the most applicable to our modern expectations.

Authentic: (1) Not false or an imitation ; (2) true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character

Authenticity is both an objective and subjective characteristic. When it comes to inanimate subjects, like a piece of art, a style of music, or a historical document, it is simple for an observer to objectively determine whether the subject is authentic. A counterfeit Monet is merely an imitation of the real work, just as a reproduction of the Constitution is not the “authentic” document. When it comes to people and their personalities, however, determining authenticity becomes a more difficult and subjective process. We have no objective way of measuring whether someone’s sense of style, characteristics, or behavior is authentic to their true selves. All we have is our own internal bullshit meter, which, depending on the skill of the subject in question, can be easily manipulated.

When it comes to YouTubers and Instagram influencers, their popularity is usually derived from their perceived authenticity. Audiences love to follow people that they admire, but they also want those people to be relatable. YouTuber Emma Chamberlain gained a huge following because of her “relatable” videos that mocked her banal suburban lifestyle. Reigning king PewDiePie, a.k.a Felik Kjellberg, rocketed to internet stardom with his irreverent meme reviews and gaming videos. A whole generation of beauty bloggers gained fame and notoriety off of their make-up skills and their ability to radiate authenticity towards their followers. Add that to the thousands of Instagram influencers who cultivate followers with the perfect mix of inspirational and aspirational content, and you get a whole sector of the entertainment industry based on a creator’s ability to convince their audience that they are authentic.

The only problem? There is no such thing as authentic entertainment. We may categorize Instagram as a type of social media, and dismiss YouTube as an amateur video-sharing platform, but that doesn’t change the fact that both of these websites have become many people’s prime source of entertainment. People don’t follow celebrity influencers because they want to bond or connect with them, they follow them because they want to watch them. It’s the same with YouTube. Posts and vlogs have replaced traditional media as the world’s favorite source of entertainment. And this would be fine, if it weren’t for the fact that many of us think that these posts and vlogs represent reality.

Back in the early 2000s when reality TV became big, viewers flocked to shows like The Hills because it claimed to show the unscripted lives of the beautiful and wealthy. It didn’t take too long for viewers to realize that reality TV, just like any form of televised entertainment, is scripted and edited, and now the majority of us take any entry in the genre with a grain of salt. But reality TV was popular for a reason: it tapped into people’s desire for connection. Audiences wanted to believe that the stars of these shows were just like them: people with ordinary lives who gained fame just by stepping in front of a camera. Suddenly, wealth, power, and beauty became obtainable, because if that random girl on Teen Mom can become rich, then anyone can.  Once it became clear that reality TV was as fictionalized as any other type of drama, audiences needed a new source of “authentic” connection to which they could relate and aspire. Enter YouTube.

YouTube creators were at their most authentic at the site’s debut. The “OGs” like Shane Dawson, Ryan Higa (NigaHiga), Fred, Philip DeFranco (called SxePhil at the time), and others didn’t strive to create well-edited aesthetic videos. They made dumb skits in front of camcorders or ranted to their camera about their personal problems. Even then, there was still an element of pure entertainment, but it was more apparent when creators were putting on a character for the sake of comedy. This is no longer the case. The line between character and creator has become so blurred that it’s impossible to know whether a YouTube creator is ever showing their “authentic” self to the camera.

Take, for instance, the infamous YouTuber Trisha Paytas. Paytas recently gained fame for jumping on the mukbang train, but she’s been creating videos since 2007, making her one of the “OGs” of the site. Paytas is an eclectic creator, posting videos on everything from vlogs, to weight loss videos, to Hamilton parodies, to impressions. YouTuber Primink made a fantastic video covering some of her older content, which used to focus on skits and character impressions. In the video, he covers some of her best “troll” moments, such as when Trisha made a video supporting  Trump’s wall, or when she supported Mitt Romney, or when she questioned whether dogs had brains. All of these videos, Primink pointed out, were examples of Trisha playing a character, or at least, to some extent satirizing her own opinions. She started out on YouTube making bizarre “comedic” skits, and even though her current channel is more “normal” (if that’s even possible), there are still instances where she delves into parody and fiction while maintaining the appearance of “authenticity.”

Some people might say that these videos do not represent the “real” Trisha and that it’s clear that she’s playing a character. Those same people might also say that Trisha’s other videos do represent the “real” her, but I disagree. It’s impossible to tell what is the “real” Trisha Paytas, just like it’s impossible to know whether PewDiePie’s videos accurately portray Felix Kjellberg’s real life personality, or whether Simply_Kenna’s apology is inauthentic. We don’t know what any of these people are like off camera because we only see them on camera. The persona that they display through posts and videos is not who they really are, no matter how nice and authentic and “real” they seem.

I’m not saying that inauthenticity is a negative trait. Creators and influencers are not bad people because they are inauthentic, but they are, in a way, lying to their audience by claiming to be authentic. That’s why it’s so bizarre to me when I see “scandals” and backlash against creators for lying to their followers or violating their unspoken contract of authenticity. YouTube and Instagram are entertainment mediums, and creators and influencers are entertainers. There is no such thing as authenticity in entertainment, so there is no such thing as a truly “authentic” entertainer. Just by being in front of a lens, we change who we are, consciously and unconsciously, until we become a version of ourselves that only exists for the camera. We’re all inauthentic in our own ways, but when it comes to those of us whose living is based off of a marketable “reality,” that inauthenticity magnifies by a hundred-fold. So if you want to call out a creator or influencer because they made a mistake, by all means do so. Just don’t call them out for being inauthentic. They were never authentic in the first place.

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