To Beme or not to Beme, that is the application: constructing an authentic version of the self on social media
In September 2015, a young Australian social media celebrity named Essana Oneill captivated mainstream media by posting a series of videos exposing the illusiveness and superficiality of her supposedly ideal life. In a dramatic and tearful breakdown, the teenage model reached out to her thousands of followers and revealed how distorted from reality her online persona was, before closing all her profiles. She argued that this situation was mainly caused by the key components of visual sharing social platforms which allow users to select, curate and eventually enhance their personal content through simple editing features and filters. Her shoutout aroused dozens of reactions conveying mixed impressions ranging from cheerful support to suspicions of a planned manoeuvre to increase her notoriety. Ironically, the controversy crystallised on social media around the hashtag #SocialMediaIsNotRealLife. As random as this fact may seem, it undeniably raises questions about user practices, perceptions and behaviours on the photo and video sharing social platforms, especially Instagram. Moreover, it revives a deeper debate about authenticity and identity in the context of social media and reveals how the digital space accentuate self-presentation issues. Initiatives aiming at countering this online superficiality and reclaiming genuineness continuously emerge, such as the popular hashtag #nofilter which users adopt to flag their allegedly unedited visual content. More recently, the mobile application “Beme” introduced in July 2015 has taken a radical stand in this quest of authenticity by removing all previewing, reviewing and editing capabilities, arguing to be “the simplest and most authentic way to share your personal experience.” (Beme 2015) Even though the service barely came out of its launching phase, such a bold claim inevitably calls for investigation from a new media perspective. Therefore, this paper intends to dig in the specificities and the narrative of this platform to answer the primary research question: to what extent does Beme provide its users with a fertile ground for the expression of their authentic self. To address this initial question, I will first perform a critical discourse analysis on some of the application’s marketing texts, and more specifically on its promotional video. Building upon the insights gained in this first phase, I will then specifically investigate the video recording functionality on Beme through a material object analysis, to see how elements of the interface fulfil or on the contrary alienate the service’s unequivocal claim. To avoid the pitfalls of the much debated issues surrounding the notion of authenticity, and to bring an enlightening framework for this research, I will start by undertaking a necessary literature review of the most prevalent theories that have attempted at defining and understanding this complex and meaningful word.
Real or fake, true or false, authentic or artificial. Such dichotomies appear in almost every sociologic and humanities theories, taking us back to age old debates that this research can’t even begin to approach. Thus, while humbly hoping for an emergent and constructive outcome, I must acknowledge that most arguments and claims that will constitute this research paper will have to be somehow understood with a contrasted lens. Lets simply begin by asking a heavy question: what is authenticity? To gain a broad vision of the topic, an excellent starting point is to consider the work of Vannini in the first chapter of Authenticity in culture, self, and society (2009) in which he extensively reviews and discusses the matter. Two intellectual currents are immediately opposed: realism and social constructionism. From the realistic perspective, “authenticity is to be understood as an inherent quality of some object, person or process” (Vannini, 2009, p.2), a vision embedded in the Oxford English Dictionary which defines authenticity as “in accordance with fact, as being true in substance.” This definition supported by traditional sociology views authenticity as a non negotiable property. Simply put, something can either be authentic or not, and identity obeys to this binary distinction. Social constructionism (or social construction of reality) on the other hand fundamentally challenges realism and argues that authenticity should be considered as a social construct rather than as a static and objective quality. This train of thought gained popularity over the last forty years, since the publication of Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s inevitable book, The Social Construction of Reality (1967). Most modern conceptualisations of authenticity depart from this shared baseline to further explore and refine the definition. In 1971, Lionel Trilling notably contributed to the debate by differentiating authenticity from sincerity, using the formula “to be true to oneself” to define the first and “to be true to others” to characterise the second. (Trilling, 1971) Other scholars have argued that authenticity couldn’t be individualised as Trilling suggested. (Hosltein and Gubrium, 2000) According to them, authenticity is a form of interactional result influenced by social situations, contexts and standards. As Marwick and Boys put it in a recent research on Twitter users, “what we consider authentic constantly changes, and what symbols or signifiers mark a thing as authentic or inauthentic differ contextually” (2011, p.12). Authenticity appears then as a fluid and amorphous ideal, especially when related to the notion of identity. This strongly resonates with Goffman’s eminent work that defined identity as a continual performance. (Goffman, 1959) Similarly, Weigert recognised the emergent nature of the self, seeing it as a creative project at the same time subject and object of the process (Weigert, 1988). In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Goffman also proposed that people continuously switch between “frontstage” and “backstage” behaviours and presentations, negotiating their identity and managing impressions to fit external circumstances. (Goffman, 1959) The underlying argument is that people find themselves in the situation of controlling information and are inclined to wear social masks, not to dupe others, but to maintain relationships. In the digitised world, people also need to conceptualise an imagined audience, which in turn influences self-presentation as Boyd suggests: “It is necessary to understand the scope of one’s audience to properly present oneself. By imagining an audience, regardless of its accuracy, teens are able to navigate the social situation required in crafting a profile” (Boyd, 2007, p.14). This social need for information control inevitably comes with conflictual effects on authenticity. To understand why this is an issue, it is important to remark that the notion of an authentic self is highly valued especially in western culture, and is supported by a recurring discourse that establishes authenticity as an ideal and inauthenticity as non desirable. Moreover, the idea of authenticity can’t be dissociated from the notion of individualism, which is at the root of postmodern societies. In particular, the american society is the epitome of individualistic culture, as Twenge extensively discussed in Generation Me. Published in 2006, the book relies on surveys of 1.2 million young people to indicate a strong increase in individualism, self-esteem, high expectations and assertiveness since the 1970s. (Twenge, 2006) While individualism isn’t criticised as such, it ultimately leads to a much more negatively connoted psychological trait: narcissism. Such claim is strongly supported by Christopher Lasch in his seminal book The Culture of Narcissism (1979). This generational phenomenon can be explained by multiple factors: “the focus on self-admiration, child-centered parenting, celebrity glorification and media encouragement, the attention seeking promoted on the Internet, and easy credit” (Twenge, 2009, p. 268). As a result, committed relationships and dedication to community become increasingly difficult to sustain for individuals (Bellah and al., 1985) as the quest for an allegedly desirable authentic self slowly morphs into an incapacity to blend with others and feel empathy. Technology plays an important role in this phenomenon and accentuates the problems of authenticity. (Gergen, 1999) Communication technologies reinforce self-presentation issues and trigger an ever more performative expression of one’s identity. Yet, they also generate great tensions regarding authenticity, as they document, archive and provide instant access to public or private information, making it increasingly difficult to escape the past. Thus, appearing authentic and unique in this digitised world only becomes harder. To balance out this issue, “individuals achieve and maintain their effect of authenticity by continuously citing the norms of authenticity” (Auslander, 1999, p.72). This constant redefinition influenced by social standards, cultural contexts, languages and technologies systematically shifts the borders of authenticity and turns it into a moving target. (Peterson, 2005) Furthermore, some scholars suggest that authenticity is always constructed in “contradistinction to something else” (Grazian, 2003, p.13). A symmetrical discourse about inauthenticity is then automatically constructed. As I just showed, there are a lot of theories and concepts that come into consideration when studying authenticity, not to mention I only picked some of the most influential and widespread ideas. To close up this literature review and before moving to the more tangible part of this research, I find very important to reaffirm where the interest and relevancy of this paper really stand: to study “how authenticity is made meaningful, rather than a quest for finding the meaning of authenticity” (Vannini, 2009, p.13).
On July 17th 2015, the film director, Youtube star and serial entrepreneur Casey Neistat (@CaseyNeistat) proudly presented to the world a new mobile application, a video-based social network called Beme. Beme allows its users to record and share four-seconds videos in an innovative way I’ll get back to later in this paper. The charismatic public figure of the web leveraged his loyal and avid followers to kickstart the new service via a detailed product launch video posted on his Youtube account. In this four minutes camera facing monologue, Neistat describes why the application has been created, what issue it aims at solving, how it should be used and why it matters. To begin with, he argues that all existing social media platforms fail in their mission: “Social media is supposed to be a digital or virtual version of who we are as people. Instead it’s this highly sculpted, calculated, calibrated version of who we are told through filters that make our eyes bluer and carefully selected images to portray a version of who we are that doesn’t really resemble the reality of things.” (Neistat 2015) He exclusively attributes this lack of authenticity to the technical functionalities and affordances of social applications. He then proceeds to a hands-on demonstration of how the materiality of the application Beme addresses this issue and ensures the expression of an authentic self. All along the clip, Neistat emphasises on the value of being “real” and “true” in an emotionally committed speech. He insists on the positive effect of expressing authenticity, and closely associates it to cultural ideals. The fact that the application was launched and presented by such a recognisable celebrity isn’t trivial and most likely creates a somehow biased perception of the platform. Because Casey Neistat isn’t an average social media user. He’s a successful, influential, entertaining, active, creative, inspirational and digitally skilled individual who turned his outgoing and engaging personality into an ideal whose followers are longing to imitate. In other words, every bit of his life is supposedly worth watching, according to western cultural standards. Furthermore, Beme can’t be dissociated from his famous ambassador and user-zero, as the press coverage demonstrates. On launch day, amongst other media outlets, The New York Times released an online article titled “Casey Neistat’s Beme is a social app that aims to replace illusions with reality” (Isaac 2015). Neistat inevitably appears as someone to follow and copy, thus influencing users future behaviours on the platform. The application was initially released on an invite-only basis, a process that contributed to build anticipation and social media attention. Invitations to join the platform were highly coveted in the days that followed the launch, and some were even traded on eBay. Thanks to this hype, the platform quickly gathered a large set of early adopters. According to TechCrunch, users had shared 1.1 million videos in the first eight days since the application launch. (Tepper 2015) The social and cultural diversity of these early users might have been undermined by this networked expansion. Consequently, users are likely to perform a homogeneous understanding of what authenticity means. As the demo video continues, authenticity is depicted as a virtue that can’t be achieved online in the current state of technology, and especially not by the existing applications that Beme eventually has to compete with. Without explicitly naming them, the video makes it clear which applications are inauthentic and why. Concretely, Instagram and Snapchat are the two implied targets of Neistat’s pleading. We can recognise here the exact processes of citing the norms of authenticity, and constructing them in opposition to something else. (Auslander, 1999; Grazian, 2003) This discourse is further developed by other paratexts of the service, such as its description in the iTunes store: “Instantly capture real moments from the world around you with a simple gesture and without interruption. Get a global view of how friends, family and interesting people from places near and far honestly live their lives, and send them genuine reactions as you watch along”. This text embodies multiple ideologies that constitute a certain perception of authenticity. More specifically, it’s the temporal dimension that stands out in this description as the concepts of liveness and immediacy appear of prime importance. The words “instantly” and “without interruption” translate the belief that seamless communication plays in favour of authenticity. I will get back in detail on how Beme’s interface affords the perception of liveness and immediacy in the following section. Back on the presentation video, Neistat shows the user experience from a viewer perspective and demonstrates how the application provides ephemerality, as the visual content – called a “beme” – can only be seen once on the platform: “once it’s over, the beme is gone forever” (Neistat 2015). This can appear contradictory as communication technologies, as I mentioned earlier, have historically mostly been developed to ensure persistence and remembrance. Ephemerality is thus a relatively new desire in the digital sphere, but one that has been receiving a lot of attention, most notably as it is an essential characteristic of Snapchat. In a recent study, scholars have suggested that ephemerality allows Snapchat to circumvent “the self-presentational concerns that influence the user experience of other media and thus perhaps encourages more authentic and less filtered exchanges” (Bayer and al., 2015, p.27). The presentation video ends with Casey Neistat explaining the “reactions” feature of Beme which allows users to send a selfie to another user as they watch his content. Katz and Crocker have recently demonstrated that this type of visual conversation were perceived as close from face-to-face conversation, an interpersonal interaction modus often referred to as authentic. In their study, they argue that 62% of the respondents supported the statement “I feel like I’m having a conversation when I exchange Snapchat photos” (Katz and Crocker, 2015, p.1867). As this critical overview of some of the application paratexts and marketing content illustrates, Beme has discursively set a stage for the performance of a certain vision of authenticity, while constructing and reinforcing this same vision.
As this research has shown, discussing the concept of authenticity in the context of visual social media is an intricate task that leads to take into consideration a multitude of theories. Identity, individualism, impression management, narcissism, liveness or ephemerality are all factors that somehow come into play in the process of publishing personal visual content online. Investigating the mobile application Beme, recently launched in reaction to several phenomena that have exposed a growing tendency towards inauthenticity on social media, has resulted in a better understanding of how authenticity can be constructed by the combined effect of a technology and its discourse. Ensuring an authentic expression of the self takes more than a new platform, a hijacked smartphone feature and a good team of software engineers. It also takes to be simply called authentic in the first place and to be driven by a moral and explicit code of conduct valued by users. Additionally, the association of a symbolically powerful gesture – bringing the hand to the chest – to the process of sharing content, most likely predisposes the user to capture life moments he believes are in line with this moral exigence. Furthermore, the networked expansion of Beme initiated by its charismatic founder and “user-zero” Casey Neistat ensured the dissemination of the platform’s core value to create an homogeneous and like-minded community of early-users. Although this research hasn’t particularly investigated the demographics of early users, it is safe to assume that they mostly intersect with either of those three subgroups: Neistat’s personal network, his Youtube subscribers or his followers on existing social media platforms. In any case, Beme users are likely to share and therefore perform a similar constructed perception of authenticity, the one that Beme is built with. In this way, this research can be considered as a stepping stone to further scrutinise the platform. An interesting way forward would be to look into some of the content published on the service in order to identify visual codes and patterns that translate this shared perception of authenticity. From an ethical standpoint however, studying allegedly ephemeral content might raise issues that studying discourses doesn’t. To conclude this paper, I wanted to share a last observation I recently made as I was looking at tweets mentioning the application. I noticed countless messages of random users aspiring to become a celebrity on Beme: “Resolution for 2016: Become @bemeapp famous”, “Goal 2016: be an interesting stranger on @bemeapp”. Surely a lot could be developed about this openly expressed pursuit of celebrity on a platform yet devoted to authenticity.
I wrote this essay in the context of the Master Programme in New Media Studies & Digital Culture
I am currently following at Utrecht University.
More specifically, this research paper was part of the Mobile Media Studies.
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