In the chapter called “Almost Famous” of I, Justine, the witty and thoughtful book by Justine Ezarik, she addresses a key question I often field about my research on life storytelling in social media: Are people being authentic online?
In one sense, of course not. Ezarik writes:
… it’s easy to forget that the average YouTube video isn’t ‘real’ … just like any other kind of content, YouTube clips are planned, filmed (often in multiple takes), edited (mistakes and bloopers can be cut out), and in many (if not most) instances, semi-scripted.”
So this is not real life, right? Well, not so fast:
“That doesn’t mean they are, in fact, inauthentic,” Ezarik continues. “I genuinely think that most YouTubers believe what they say on camera; I certainly don’t just make things up when I’m shooting a video—but they aren’t an accurate and full depiction of any one person’s life.”
Still the questions will persist. Don’t we just share the parts we want people to see? How can this can be anything but self-aggrandizing performance and how doesn’t that lead to unreal expectations for how people live their lives? That isn’t just a question for YouTube stars but for all of us who use social media, even on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, even Snapchat.
I understand that it’s dangerous to compare YouTube stars to the average social media user. Ezarik has built a career, like many YouTubers, by carefully sharing parts of her life alongside cooking shows, tech reviews, gaming and so on. They are professional entertainers at this point and that’s not what most of us are trying to be when we upload an Instagram photo.
There is a connection between YouTubers and the rest of us, however, because very few YouTube channels prosper without a feeling of real connection to their audience. And for many of us there is a currency at stake—a feedback economy—paid in likes, comments, retweets, etc., that makes us feel digitally connected.
It is an interesting time to ask the question about self-presentation of YouTube stars, because several of the biggest, like Ezarik, have published memoirs or are about to. (Here’s a list of books by YouTubers, many of which are memoirs). So what is the relationship between writing a memoir and vlogging your life?
“It was cool, because I was reverse-stalking myself,” says Ezarik, who while writing her book studied her digital footprint on every social media and connected it to her offline life. What she found made her laugh, smile, cringe, you name it. But the book was not as rehash of her digital self.
“I felt like I could tell the whole story up to this point,” Ezarik says. “People often see random, one-off videos. Some of them are really good. Some are terrible. Some were just made for my core audience. Now, here’s the whole story behind that.”
That’s a meaningful insight into how social media works for most of us. The posts we share are rooted in moments and become snippets of unfinished stories that we rarely tie together into a whole package.
“A little video is one piece of a giant puzzle,” Ezarik says.
We do jigsaw out parts of our life to share. It is essential on YouTube, says Joey Graceffa, author of In Real Life: My Journey Through a Pixelated World, because of the lack of context created by a single video.
“In a book you can give the full story, and build up to those moments,” Graceffa says, who has revealed intimate facts about his life both in the book and on YouTube.
“I’m pretty much myself and I talk about serious things on my channel,” he says. “The book was just a more in-depth version. It was on a heavier level than a video.”
What a video can do, in terms of revealing a true self, is show a maturation process if, like Gracefa, a vlogger continues to use YouTube for years.
“It’s crazy, I’ve been doing this since I was a 16-year-old,” says Graceffa, now 24. “Being a daily vlogger, it’s almost a video diary of those days. It’s really cool … and sometimes embarrassing.”
But beyond those elements of watching younger versions of ourself, Graceffa dug into a childhood in which he was bullied and watched his mother struggle with alcoholism while he worked out his own sexual identity. Much of that life was amassing together in his book and that caused tension, especially with his mother. It meant drawing lines there too.
“I wanted to convey my story, but I knew there were many other things behind the scenes that were going on in her life that I wanted to try to convey,” he says. “But this was a book about me and my story. And there were bigger things that happened that I decided not to share, just because I didn’t want to cross the line with my mom. I feel like I was still able to convey the message without exposing her.”
This is an important lesson, according to YouTube star Lilly Singh, who has not written a book yet, but did use her life story as inspiration for a one-woman show that she took on tour earlier this year. One of Singh’s most powerful videos is a Draw My Life in which she talks openly about her depression. She mentions early in the video that she had posted one version and took it down. In a recent interview, she said she needed to do that, because her she realized she was exposing those close to her.
“I talk about my depression quite openly,” Singh says, “and everyone is, ‘But why? Why were in you in depression?’ And my answer is always, ‘I was having a hard time with my family. I was having a hard time with friends.’ And they start to pry, ‘What happened with your friends?’ And that is not my story to tell. Because I told you the part about me.”
So, of course, the self is partial online. We protect ourselves, project who we’d like to be, leave remnants unfinished and monitor feedback to determine what fits in our social fabric. YouTube stars negotiate these presentations of the self in much the same we do, even if they do so in mass friendships. Sociologist Erving Goffman saw this kind of “acting” of the self as a way to “convey an impression to others” which is in the actors’ best interest to convey. He noted these daily performances in 1956, almost 50 years before YouTube was gleam in its founders’ eyes.
“This is real life,” says Felicia Day, who released her memoir last month. “Digital life is your real life.”
That also means mistakes are real. Maybe some of us post too much, or let an online group shape our actions for a time. And much of that activity is hard to expunge, a new kind of memory that is complicated by other users, as well as by software. The fact that digital self is real, not just a perfect performance, makes it risky. But Day believes it can be worth it, especially for those who do not find the supporting communities they need in their hometowns or schools.
“That’s a beautiful thing about the Internet,” Day says. “Different voices that are made to feel other can be made to feel like they belong. And it tends to transcend things that can be barriers in real life, like race, and age and background. We might connect with people we never would, because we’re walking around with these judgements and biases.”
What, perhaps, can be learned from YouTubers is the increasingly intelligent way many of them insert themselves into the digital world. Many critics have referred to this as narcissism. My response to that is the only people who are using social media narcissistically … are actual narcissists. For the rest, posting on social media about yourself is as narcissistic as entering a room. It’s the only way to arrive.
For YouTubers, that room is always a little hard to read. Ezarik tells about a time she posted a video she intended to be for her core fans, some of whom have been following since pre-YouTube days, when she was a lifecaster. But the video link was tweeted out by a major corporation who was sponsoring an upcoming appearance.
“I was not thinking anybody else was going to see this expect, you know, my best friends,” she laughs. “You don’t always think about it.”
Most of us don’t usually have to worry a major brand is going to amplify our lives. So the YouTuber becomes deft at recognizing how to create a digital self they feel comfortable being, whether for a core base of followers or a mass audience. Ezarik says part of that balance is to post for the same reasons that got her started years ago.
“I did it because I was in the middle of nowhere and I didn’t have any friends,” Ezarik says. “So I found this cool community of people online that liked the same things I liked. It goes back to that connection. That’s what’s powerful about YouTube. You can find your people.”
[By Michael Humphrey] [Read More] [Photo from iJustine.com]