Blog Post 1: ‘Authenticity’ is in the Eye of the Beholder

In class and in a few blog posts there is a consistent trend that is presenting itself – an “us versus them” mentality. I think that the vast majority of this type of speak is culturally influenced, because we are taught to talk and think about things in dichotomous (and often dualistic) terms just in general. I also think, though, that a lot of the topics we discussed in class are difficult to relate to, especially focusing on an interactive, virtual world like Second Life, when there are few to none who have had personal experience with it. The advantages and disadvantages addressed in the articles this week, especially in Boellstorff, are part of a world that few of us have had much experience with, which influences our opinions and also our ability to analyze it.
(Disclaimer: This episode contains relevant content, but also adult content that might be considered sensitive by some.)

I mentioned this show in class, and as I said, it’s not exactly an academic account by any means. But (as far as my understanding goes) it does accurately depict the types of people who frequent worlds like Second Life and many of the users that Boellstorff writes about. The most important facts to understand in order to understand what’s it like to live “IRL” but also in a virtual world without them being exclusively separate relies on the beliefs of the person who is participating in both. While it may be something most of us can’t understand, reading the accounts in Boellstorff article and watching the video above can show us more about the other side of things and what it’s like to feel as though you are so constrained in reality that you cannot truly express your inner being.

Another piece of this virtual world puzzle that we struggle with, that isn’t the same for those who participate actively in a consistent, virtual world is the idea that we’ve touched on in class about authenticity. The author originating that discussion (Turkle) has a very specific idea of authenticity – digital communication couldn’t possibly be more authentic than face-to-face communication – and we as a class may see authenticity in many different ways. However, as stated before, the users in this Second Life world do not necessarily feel as though they are being inauthentic, and at times feel as though they are more true to themselves in Second Life than in real life (as stated in the Boellstorff’s article).

Personally, the only issue I see with this is those who fall outside of this mostly well-intentioned idea. Some users, maybe even a majority, are really seeking connections in meaningful ways that will be sustainable and relationships that reflect very real parts of themselves, even in a virtual world. There will be other users in all communities that do not have those same intentions in mind. These may be exceptions to the rule, but what make me lean more towards Turkle’s feeling of authenticity. In a world of “Catfish” (explained in video below), even talking to someone on Facebook can be complicated with deception and misrepresentation, so when you take it to another level of creating a (sometimes completely different) persona in a virtual world, how can you know who’s being real to their ‘real’ selves, and who’s not?
(This show is a spinoff of the movie “Catfish”, a documentary – ironically – who’s authenticity has been disputed. The show is definitely scripted and kind of cheesy, but it explains the whole story of the original movie. There are multiple ways to track down the actual movie, but this is easily accessible for anyone interested. Despite the unbelievable quality of these episodes, these types of interactions happen all the time.)

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4 Responses to Blog Post 1: ‘Authenticity’ is in the Eye of the Beholder

  1. mkhalifa503 says:

    I’d never heard of the movie or the show “Catfish”, so this was a really interesting post for me. What’s more interesting is your idea of “authenticity is in the eye of the beholder”, which is something I want to run with in this response. Maybe even throw it back to you, based on the stance you’ve put up here.

    I think most of us, at this point anyway, agree with the idea that authenticity is subjective. And you’ve shown, more or less via Boellstorff’s paper, that it can be multidimensional as well (so we have a few stances: RL is more authentic [Turkle], SL/VL is more authentic, or maybe that both are equally authentic but that they complement each other or are some kind of mix of authenticity [I’d argue this is Boellstorff’s position]). All these, I don’t have any reason to debate. But when you brought in “Catfish” as grounds for siding more along the Turkle end of the spectrum for authenticity, I wondered if we aren’t imposing our own ideas of what qualifies as authentic or consistent with the “well-intentioned idea” of presenting who we really are online.

    Essentially: We seem to be ok with people compensating for something online, or perhaps revealing something that isn’t apparent IRL, or emphasizing different parts of themselves online. But we draw a (somewhat shady) line on what’s acceptable (I want to portray myself as a female because I like to express myself that way, etc.) with people like those in “Catfish”. I would guess most people might argue that those who “deceive” others in online relationships have crossed the line because they’ve “tricked” or affected their interactions with others via their “trickery”. But how different is that from altering our interactions with others online via less-frowned upon methods? I think that rather than “Catfish” be evidence/fodder in the authenticity debate, it’s arguably a manifestation of “authenticity privilege”. If people are happy with their online relationships in the same way that we are happy with our altered selfhood in online games/interactions – if we are really going to say that authenticity is subjective – can we make any kind of judgement on “Catfish” people?

  2. kjjohnson52 says:

    I really liked your reply! And I’m glad that you found the Catfish examples interesting. I think that it’s not a matter of judgment either way, but I do think there’s a difference between portraying yourself in a virtual world and those in a “Catfish” type relationship. The part of authenticity comes into play on the other side of those who are Catfish-ing. It’s not that one person is deciding a rubric to judge the authenticity of online presence, it’s that someone is expecting a person’s ‘authentic’ self and they are purposefully not portraying themselves. I think that line gets drawn when new names and pictures are taken on in fiction, but are meant to be taken as real. It would be the same if someone on Second Life in portraying their ‘true’ selves picked an avatar unlike their appearance and claimed that their made up username was also their real name. And that delves into that idea of what role-playing is and isn’t – a topic I couldn’t get to in my original post. Because, despite whether we define authenticity as only reality or possible in a virtual world, there is a difference between those who intentionally role-play and those who make themselves out to be a completely different person but claim it to be the same as their ‘irl’ selves. Either way, I think it’s a really good way to look at things!

  3. mkhalifa503 says:

    I like your ideas about the definition of role playing, but I wonder how our ideas of authenticity play into that. I agree with you that there is a difference between role playing and conveying that your IRL self is something that most people would say it’s not. I’m not sure if it really applies to the Catfish folk (I’m sure their experiences are not as multilayered as our discussions could get if we want them to be), but what if that IS their role playing? Or what if how we see people’s IRL selves is not the same as how they see themselves? Like if they don’t think their role playing? At this point it’s all meaningless conjecture but it’s such a fascinating point about the interplay between authenticity and role-play (and then also the ramifications we see with each).

  4. cstabile says:

    Sorry to weigh in on this discussion so late in the game. I really just want to add two points to the excellent convo you’ve been having. First, there was a really interesting RadioLab podcast ( about a guy who had a friend who he loved very much, but whose life (as it turned out) was totally different from the life he represented to others. He suspected that there was something that didn’t ring true, but he enjoyed their friendship and didn’t pry or ask more of the friend. That story had a sad ending, but I think it’s relevant to this conversation. Some people — for a whole host of reasons — can’t be transparent in the ways we’re led to expect. Could it be that those in search of “authenticity” will forever be disappointed when friends (either IRL or virtual) don’t match up with their ideal? Could it also be that because we are led to believe that FTF relationships are more “real” and better that we’re unwilling to accept our virtual relationships on their own terms? I don’t know if my best friend in WoW is really who he says he is, but I find him kind and helpful and interesting to talk to. Is my relationship any less authentic because I don’t know if he’s thin or poor or rich or even male?

    Second, I found the True Life episode fascinating. Why is it that all the characters are female? How does this webisode reinforce moral panics about women and webcams? It so pathologizes women’s relationships with technology by suggesting that women are driven to Second Life because they suffer from a whole range of mental health issues. What about women who just like to rock out on Second Life?

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