You Don’t Need to Be Real to Be Popular
About a month ago a motorcycle-loving Japanese woman with 27,800 followers on Twitter revealed that he was actually a 50-year old Japanese man who had been using a photo app to make his face look like a young woman.
According to the BBC, the man (named Soya) did this because, “No one will read what a normal middle-aged man, taking care of his motorcycle and taking pictures outside, posts on his account.” By editing his pictures to look like a young, attractive woman, he was far more popular on Twitter. “I get as many as 1,000 likes now, though it was usually below 10 before,” Soya continued in his segment on the TV program Getsuyou Kara Yofukashi (Sitting Up Late From Monday).
While that’s strange to start, the weirdness only continues. Even after eagle-eyed fans unmasked the motorcyclist after spotting an unedited reflection in a selfie, Soya is still editing his photos. And people are still talking to his alter ego as though she’s real.
We say we want authenticity, but what we want is a convincing fraud
In my younger days of trying to be a Cool Girl, I found that I got a lot more male attention when I guzzled beer, pretended to like soccer, and feigned an interest in video games. I can only assume Soya experienced the same to be true for his Twitter account.
If you speak to any social media expert, one of the first things you’ll hear is the importance of authenticity. “Be yourself,” I’ve read on hundreds of digital marketing blogs. “Share the highs and the lows. Your audience wants to know the real you.”
But the truth is far more insidious — people just want the attractive image of authenticity. Just like I was more socially valued in my younger days when I pretended to be (authentically) interested in cheap lager, watching soccer, and playing Call of Duty, and just like Soya found that his deeply inauthentic persona gained a lot more popularity than his actual self, social media followers don’t seem to particularly care if you’re real, fake, or edited. As long as your front is convincing, you’ll find the engagement you want.
Soya’s followers continued to enjoy his content even when he admitted he was heavily editing his pictures. CGI models on Instagram walk the fine line of the uncanny valley, telling fake stories and getting real brand deals. Despite what reputable sources will tell you, their audience confirms the unsettling fact: On the internet, your audience doesn’t mind if you’re fake.
Why do we engage with fake content?
This is the sticking point for me: Casual browsers and consumers alike seem to enjoy, engage, and mindlessly consume content that isn’t genuine.
I get why we engage with celebrities and influencers when they post FaceTuned pics. They’re real enough that they can still sell us on their version of reality. Social media has enabled a whole swath of attractive people to create and financially benefit from parasocial relationships.
But what about creators like Soya, who are fake from start to finish? Not only do his followers still engage with him, even after he revealed his deceit — he gained 12,000 followers the same week he went public as himself.
Even though deep down, I think we know all of Kim Kardashian’s pics are edited, she only gets flack for the ones that are obviously “photoshop fails.” We don’t hate inauthenticity — we only hate it when it’s obvious.
Soya’s complete and utter transformation is still appealing to people. The only underlying truth is that both he and his creation love motorcycles. And because his falsehood is so effective at persuading us that it’s reality, his followers are still happy to play along.
When we all pretend online, who is the loser?
I hated myself when I was younger because I couldn’t be who I pretended to be. Even though I got the attention I wanted, I wasn’t me. I walked on eggshells, terrified the mask would slip, and my real, unlikeable self would topple out.
What would happen if I took a selfie, edited it in FaceTune, and posted it to Instagram? I might or might not get more likes, but either way, I’d have to compromise the part that I’ve worked so hard to cultivate: the part that knows that being me matters, that social media popularity contests aren’t real, and that I have more to offer than being attractive.
That’s something that the Soyas and the CGI models like the Miquelas of the world don’t have to lose. Because their entire persona is fake, they can create whatever persona they like without suffering the difficulty of pretending to be someone they aren’t. CGI model Miquela, for instance, is permitted to be forever thin while eating burgers, forever experiencing life while staying frozen at 19. She and Soya are free to embody the ideal woman without paying the price of pretending to be a concept that doesn’t exist.
You’re the only person you have to be true to
I find it interesting that so much of the (bad) advice on social media is to be authentic and relatable because it’s what your audience wants. Besides not being true, it totally misses the main point that being someone else is psychologically hard. Getting likes when you’ve tweaked your body or smoothed your wrinkles is cheap because deep down, you know it’s fake.
Research corroborates this point. Erica Bailey and co-authors wrote in Nature that “self-idealizing behavior can be psychologically costly, as acting out of character is associated with feelings of internal conflict, psychological discomfort, and strong emotional reactions.” While it’s normal and good to want to be a better you — and social media enables that by allowing you to post all kinds of inauthentic content — it comes at a high cost. Conversely, researchers found that when they asked their participants to post in an authentic way, the participants reported a more positive mood.
It’s clear that when you post on social media, your audience doesn’t care if it’s real or not. There’s no social or institutional penalty for being fake, whether that’s simply posting a highlight reel, tucking away a bit of tummy fat, or totally altering your identity for likes — as long as you do it convincingly enough. The Soyas and Miquelas of the world can continue posting their invented personas free of cost. But when you try to imitate them, the only person who pays the penalty is you.