Hannah Grace Martin
Hannah Grace Martin

In recent months, we’ve seen the rise of independent social media marketed toward authenticity: first BeReal, now others like Gas have cropped up. When we speak with Gen Z consumers, authenticity feels like a buzzword—it comes up again and again as a guidepost for ideal experiences—yet, they have difficulty defining it. Instead, it feels like a reaction to the inauthenticity they see on Instagram and to a lesser extent TikTok, which they see as to blame for feeling a lack of social connection in spaces we believe should foster connection. While BeReal’s features limit the ability to curate posts, the core of its UX is the same as larger social media platforms, which limits the social connection that underpins authenticity. To design for authenticity, platforms must adopt a UX that allows users to adapt and evolve their identities over time.

Putting on an “act” in social spaces isn’t unique to social media. In 1959, Erving Goffman published The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, where he contends that real-life social situations cause participants to be actors on a stage, with each implicitly knowing their role. The character one plays depends on a variety of contextual factors: who is present, the “props” and “set” (visual cues) among others. As such, each performance is different. His theory explains why one might feel awkward when two different social groups are in the same room: the actor doesn’t know which role they are supposed to play.

In online spaces, the feed is our perma-stage. Facebook’s News Feed was designed to deliver updates on friends the same way we receive updates on local and national news. It seems inevitable that this product vision would produce performances, and highly curated ones at that. Its one-to-many nature limits standard interaction; instead of an actor-actor dynamic, we see a creator-commentor-lurker hierarchy. And because creators design their posts to cater to the masses, they are not moving from stage to stage; instead, one’s online persona feels static. Here, the light of inauthenticity shines through, as we are no longer playing together, but watching others perform.

In Goffman’s model, actors retreat “back-stage” when they are alone or with close others — this is the place where they can let their hair down and be free from keeping up impressions. While the dominance of social media’s feed might make the Internet seem like an unlikely place for back-stage settings, we find almost every social media has a direct message function. In contrast to the one-to-many, post-centric UX of the feed, these back-stage spaces are one-to-one or one-to-few interaction-heavy spaces that have come to be the most fulfilling part of the social media experience for users. Instead of solo “lurking” that can lead to comparison and loneliness, users that are active in back channels find engagement, connection, and reprieve to be themselves, or at least the character that feels like the smallest margin of performance with this particular friend or group, since they have created their “show” together.

But it’s the feed that dominates the social media experience. It permeates moments that would have traditionally been back-stage settings (for example, alone in one’s home), and so we find ourselves wanting authenticity, or a back-stage feeling, here. And so, trends like posting crying selfies have surfaced, which feel close to a cut and paste: back-stage content onto the front-stage. While a post like this could make a user feel understood or less alone momentarily, the infrastructure on social media doesn’t enable the interaction needed to produce real support, and can continue to feel designed for likes. Between glamour shots and crying selfies sits BeReal, where users post more of the “everyday” of their everyday life. Still, BeReal has been criticized for either being boring, still performative, or even exclusive in a more intimate way. A feed can’t support true connection, the table-stakes of enduring authenticity.

Outside of these two paradigms, we see a third type of space emerging. Platforms like Discord have taken hold during the pandemic as a more casual place to “hang out” virtually. Building on a chat-based UX, Discord enables users to find others with similar interests and move between smaller and larger channels as well as text and voice-based communication. Further, Discord is the hub for creative expressions like Midjourney, an AI image generator that can only be accessed through Discord using bot commands. Similarly, Fortnite builds conversation through shared experience and play, in so doing re-leveling the audience-observer dynamic and putting engagement over performance. Extending Goffman’s metaphor, we might compare the social atmosphere created on Discord and Fortnite to a writer’s room, where users engage and create together. 

A more agile space like Discord reflects the “Presentation of Self” as charted by Gen Z. This generation sees the self as a canvas for experimentation, where identity is fluid. Through creative tools and less definite spaces, creativity and play  extend to the making of self on a journey of self-discovery. Users can create and try on characters much like a comedian might on a Tuesday night, to first see if it might resonate for Saturday night, much before an enduring part of the act.

To enable more dynamic interactions , we will need to move away from a cut and paste UX approach to a ground-up infrastructure that is designed for fluidity. Taking pointers from the “writer’s room,” two principles can guide us. First, collaboration. Similar to “yes – and,” creators in authentic spaces create in tandem vs. a creator-consumer dynamic. UX of authentic spaces must lean toward chat over post, which fosters interaction and relationships that ensure it’s safe to try a new presentation of self. Second, authentic social media needs impermanence. Though a feed may refresh over time, we know that posts on Instagram will be connected to our profile for years to come. If it’s instead lost in a Discord feed, we may feel more freedom to experiment and “get it wrong.” Combining collaboration and impermanence, we might just set the stage to permit the collection of characters we all play, so that we can all feel a bit more dynamic, and perhaps even authentic, in digital spaces.