Monthly Archives: January 2015

authentic sharing

I’m fascinated by this HBR article about the “sharing” economy’s rhetoric by marketing professors Giana M. Eckhardt and Fleura Bardhi. The gist of their findings is that consumers don’t care about “building community” through using services like Airbnb; they actually just want cheaper services and less hassle. The platforms are popular because they actually diminish social interaction while letting you take advantage of service providers with little leverage. You “trust” the sharing-platform brand while you exploit the random person offering a ride or an apartment (or whatever) without having to negotiate with them face to face.

When “sharing” is market-mediated — when a company is an intermediary between consumers who don’t know each other — it is no longer sharing at all. Rather, consumers are paying to access someone else’s goods or services for a particular period of time. It is an economic exchange, and consumers are after utilitarian, rather than social, value.

That seems almost self-evident. It’s premised on the belief that we define “social value” as the interpersonal interactions that aren’t governed by market incentives and economistic rationality. “Utilitarian value” is about consumption efficiency, which is impeded by dealing with other humans who can be unpredictable or have irrational demands.

The authors propose “access economy” as an alternative to sharing economy. One might presume it refers to the way consumers can pay brokering companies for access to new pools of labor and rental opportunities. Think “shakedown economy” or “bribe economy.” Middlemen like Uber who (like an organized-crime racket) can bypass the law and bully the street-level people working for it are in a prime position to collect tolls from people seeking necessary services. 

But Eckhardt and Bardhi seem to want to use the term to differentiate renting from owning. People are content to buy access to goods rather than to acquire them as property. Renting is bad for marketers (it’s not “best practices”), because people don’t invest any of their identity into brands they merely rent. They don’t commit to them, don’t risk their self-concept on them. “When consumers are able to access a wide variety of brands at any given moment, like driving a BMW one day and a Toyota Prius the next day, they don’t necessarily feel that one brand is more ‘them’ than another, and they do not connect to the brands in the same closely-binding, identity building fashion." 

So what marketers want consumers to want is ownership, which puts their identity in play and gives advertisers something to sink their teeth into. Whether or not consumers actually want to own so many things is a different question. Marketers of course must insist that they know what consumers want (that’s their rationale for their job); the benefits consumers supposedly reap according to marketers are actually just the ideological tenets of marketing.

This helps bring into focus what a true sharing economy — one that discouraged ownership while imposing reciprocal human interaction —might accomplish. Marketers like "brand communities” that let isolated people "share identity building practices with like-minded others,“ but little else. That is, in such communities they can "share” without sharing. They can “share” by buying products for themselves.

But with more widely distributed rental opportunities, identity anchored in what one owns can potentially be disrupted. As the marketing professors write:

When consumers are able to access a wide variety of brands at any given moment, like driving a BMW one day and a Toyota Prius the next day, they don’t necessarily feel that one brand is more “them” than another, and they do not connect to the brands in the same closely-binding, identity building fashion. They would rather sample a variety of identities which they can discard when they want. 

If not for the burden of ownership, then, consumers would conceivably try on and discard the identities implied by products without much thought or sense of risk. They would forgo the “brand community” for a more fluid sense of identity. Perhaps they would anchor their identity in something other than products while enjoying the chance to play around with personae, by borrowing and not owning the signifying resonances of products. 

Perhaps that alternate anchor for the self could be precisely the sort of human interaction that exceeds the predictable, programmable exchanges dictated by the market, and its rational and predictable incentives. This is the sort of interaction that people call “authentic.” (Or we could do away with anchors for the self altogether and go postauthentic — have identity only in the process of “discarding” it. )

Sharing companies do nothing to facilitate that sort of interaction; indeed they thrive by doing the opposite. (Authenticity marketing does the same thing; it precludes the possibility of authenticity by co-opting it.) They subsume more types of interaction and exchange to market structures, which then they mask by handling all the money for the parties involved. This affords them the chance to pretend to themselves that the exchange has stemmed from some “meaningful” rather than debased and inauthentic commercial connection, all while keeping a safe distance from the other party.

Sharing companies and brand communities mediate social relations and make them seem less risky. Actual community is full of friction and unresolvable competing agendas; sharing apps’ main function is to eradicate friction and render all parties’ agenda uniform: let’s make a deal. They are popular because they do what brand communities do: They allow people to extract value from strangers without the hassle of having to dealing with them as more than amiable robots.

When sharing companies celebrate the idea of community, they mean brand community. And if they appropriate rhetoric about breaking down the attachment to owning goods as a means of signifying identity and inclusion, it’s certainly not because they care about abolishing personal property, or pride in it. It’s because they are trying to sell their brand as an alternative to the bother of actually having to come up with a real alternative to product-based personal identity. 

The perhaps ineluctable problem is that belonging to communities is hard. It is inefficient. It does not scale. It doesn’t respond predictably to incentives. It takes more work the more you feel you belong. It requires material sacrifice and compromise. It requires a faith in other people that exceeds their commercial reliability. It entails caring about people for no reason, with no promise of gain. In short, being a part of community is a total hassle but totally mandatory (like aging and dying), so that makes us susceptible to deceptive promises that claim to make it easy or avoidable, that claim to uniquely exempt us. That is the ruse of the “sharing economy"—the illusion it crates that everyone is willing to share with you, but all you have to do is download an app.


Authenticity through self-commodification

This is from a paper at First Monday by Georgia Gaden and Delia Dumitrica called “The Real Deal: Strategic Authenticity, Politics, and Social Media.” I think this passage suggests why authenticity has managed to retain some of its positive valence — why you still occasionally see people use it without irony. (Emphasis added.)

“Authenticity,” before it was co-opted by marketers, was a word invoked by social critics like Marshall Berman to denote a care for the preconditions for individuality. Much as Gilbert Simondon argued that individuality must emerge from a pre-individual sociality, an earlier generation of philopshopers of authenticity emphasized the inevitably social basis for personal authenticity. Individuality comes as a consequence of belonging to a society; it doesn’t precede belonging. 

To care about authenticity meant fostering and nurturing a society (and its set of typical social relations) that made individuality’s emergence possible. For these often existentialist-leaning thinkers, individuality was taken as end goal whose value is self-evident. The purpose of life as far as they are concerned is to individuate for the sake of it. 

“Authenticity” as marketing discourse adopts this emphasis on individuation but marries it to consumerism while divorcing it from society. The point is no longer to build or sustain a society that makes individuality possible, but to escape from the supposed constraints society places on the self by buying things (and buying spaces to display them). The paper’s authors argue that social media has permitted users to seek authenticity through self-commodification, which turns other people into mere consumers to be satisfied “rather than known, understood, or respected.” The connection between the self and the society that permits that self to exist becomes an instrumental exchange rather than a reciprocal relation.

Self-commodification allows authenticity to be certified by attention. You are authentic if you are faved, retweeted, etc. They signal that you have been consumed appropriately, that the self-expression you attempted has been received and is regarded as real/legitimate.

At the same time, self-commodification also circumscribes the role of other people; it allows you to imagine other people are nothing but consumers, or audiences, while you are the center of attention, free to do whatever.    

This helps transform “authenticity” into a zero-sum game: Authenticity is measured and expressed in terms of freedom from the constraints others place on you, and it can be bought by spending enough to opt out of the social interactions that otherwise condition people’s behavior. Hence, the more “convenient” you make you life, the more “authentic” it feels. This is why authenticity tends to be associated with spontaneity, immediacy in marketing discourse. That discourse is trying to collapse the experience of a lived relation (your relation to the others who make it possible for you to recognize your life as real and meaningful) into a gesture, into something you can buy and display (this ethical water bottle stands in for the relations I want to have with people, indicating my fundamental human decency and concern for our shared environmental future, but I don’t know which people nor do I have the time to relate to them, really).    

Even when “authenticity” is defined as transcending social limits, it still relies on the participation of others. Only now they are competitors rather than collaborators. They make authenticity possible by being defeated, by having their social actions determined by your own and disappeared. Authenticity becomes a power relation that disguises itself. Individuation becomes a means to this end, more power.

authenticity marketing

Given that authenticity is only “real” as a brand-management phenomenon, I figured the book Authenticity by marketing consultants James Gilmore and Joseph Pine would give me some useful insight. So far I am not disappointed.

1. Gilmore and Pine regard authenticity as a means to create consumer demand in the midst of abundance. Authenticity is fundamentally a means for creating a perceived scarcity in a populace of satiated consumers.

2. The authenticity or “realness” of a consumer good is not a matter of its physical properties or utility. It is a matter of the way consumers experience buying and consuming the good. (Gilmore and Pine view Authenticity as an elaboration of their previous book, The Experience Economy.) Authentic doesn’t describe an experience, but is itself the experience. Things (or people) are not in themselves authentic; authenticity is an affect, a structure of feeling. Gilmore and Pine suggest authenticity is a service: Consumers pay someone to make them feel real for a time.

3. Authenticity constitutes a kind of utility beyond the conventional idea of usefulness; it makes goods useful for how they make people specifically aware of their own individuality, their own supposed uniqueness. Goods are “authentic” when they evoke a self-conscious subjectivity, when they permit you to revel in the fact that you are you.

4. Establishing a person’s need to feel unique — by no means an intrinsic human desire, but an ideological proposition — is at the core of generating the demand for “authentic” goods. The authenticity fetish relies on a culture that incessantly preaches individualism and devalues collectivity. When authenticity is enlisted as a marketing tool, it makes devaluing collectivity directly profitable.

5. Authenticity is about identity — mathematical identity: a = a. But this identity is not given but made. It can’t be postulated but instead must be routed through “authentic goods” that can unfold the tautology of selfhood as an experience in time. So, as manifest in allows a to recognize itself as a: a = b = a. (One could probably bring in Heidegger and Badiou and Lacan here to buttress this point.)

6. To experience authenticity, one must have a comparison staged between the self and some external thing that resolves them as being essentially equivalent. Authenticity-as-a-service must create that stage (or a platform, a la social media), supply the points of comparison.

7. The accepted bases for that comparison (what sorts of things are considered comparable, and in what ways) determines what sorts of things can be considered “authentic." Authenticity isn’t established through nonstrategic spontaneity; a reified sense of spontaneity is the product being sold. So authenticity is not guaranteed by being uncalculated, as with the illusion of sprezzatura. It is instead expressed through deliberate consumer choices that can be construed retroactively as impulses that express the essential self. Gilmore and Pine regard the offer of customization options as a way companies can "render” authenticity for consumers through their products.

8. The bases for authenticity, the criteria, constitute genres. The points of possible comparison are preformatted, in order to be legible and supply a framework for personal choices. (You can customize goods, but only along predetermined axes.) Fidelity to generic conventions, not spontaneous originality, makes for authenticity. Authenticity is, in this sense, formulaic.

9. An individual’s consumption data provides one convenient basis for the comparisons required to generate “authenticity.” Authenticity becomes a matter of matching data sets, one of which defines the self and another which defines a consumer good. To experience authenticity in those convenient terms, one must consent to being represented as data and abet the construction of the data simulacrum of the self.

10. Goods (whose physical properties are irrelevant to this procedure) must also become enriched with the identity data of those who affiliate themselves with them or consume them. Consumption produces the identity data for goods, gives them “meaning,” but only in the limited sense of allowing them to speak the authenticity of a certain group of people whose situationally salient data matches up.

11. When goods are consumed for their supposed authenticity, they are treated as media objects. They communicate a single message about users’ having become or expressed themselves. The goods are not authentic; they are generic in ways that permit the consumer to feel authentic.

12. For a good to be authentic, there needs to be a consumer (performing authenticity by consuming/experiencing  the good) and an audience validating the performance. Sometimes — maybe ideally — the performer and the audience is one and the same person: a = a. But in that case, authenticity is not about integrating the self but dividing it into a self that can watch over itself. (One could bring in Foucault at this point.)

13. The authenticity performance (the Foucauldian “game of truth”) is a fictional performance, akin to a kind of historical re-enactment. In Club Cultures, Sarah Thornton describes authenticity as the “reassuring reward for suspending disbelief.”Authenticity is what one feels in successfully forgetting the effort one has made to put on its performance. It’s what happens when you can regard something you made or chose as something you discovered (about yourself) — when you can forget the calculations that went into the postures you are trying to strike for yourself. 

14. When companies try to invest their products with the air of authenticity, what they are hoping to inspire in customers is the enjoyable experience of the suspension of disbelief. Chipotle doesn’t expect customers to genuinely believe the weird tchotchkes on their walls are made by Aztecs, or that the exposed brick proves some sort of fidelity to “how things really are.” They want to give customers the opportunity to play along. Authenticity is a staged moment of forgetting fakery.

15. Gilmore and Pine point out that authenticity is not a moral issue: “The pursuit of authenticity should not be mistaken for the way to eternity.” It might be more accurate, though, to say that authenticity cloaks itself as a moral issue to help disguise itself, to help the suspension of disbelief. Increasing the stakes of authenticity enhances the dissonance involved in pursuing it. We want to believe we are not faking what we know we are faking much more intensely. This prompts us to commit to the fantasy and to the self-censure that invalidates it simultaneously, assuring a more rapid cycling between the two poles.

curse of “talent”

From Careless Love, the second volume of Peter Guralnick’s Elvis Presley biography:

Elvis’ own attitude, on the other hand, seemed to Tony Brown to reflect a disrespect for himself and the fans that he had never shown before, even in his most erratic moments. “He’d be onstage some nights, and he’d suddenly just turn around and face us. He’d always pick out one person in the band, and he’d look at them and act silly. He’d just stand there, four or five minutes — not do anything. The audience would be screaming out song titles or applauding or stomping their feet. Elvis would have his back to the audience, and he’d be going like, ‘Just listen to them stupid people …’ and here we are with our hands on our instruments hoping he will call out something we know. Instead … he’s just being Elvis out of control, saying, ‘These people, they don’t care if I’m good or bad. I can do anything, and they still love it.’” 

Elvis was caught in a trap. He was so used to being loved automatically that he couldn’t handle any kind of criticism. He regarded a lack of a standing ovation as total failure. But at the same time, the unconditional love made him feel that what he was doing was meaningless, beyond evaluation, irrelevant. He needed the approval of other people desperately, but his own talent impeded his ever truly believing in that approval when it came. The more his fans loved what he did, the less he could believe that what he did mattered, until he finally ground into a state of paralysis. He could choose to do more and more unlovable things, or he could choose not to love himself and succumb to self-destruction. Apparently, judging by Guralinick’s narrative, he did a lot of both.



The very fact of having to say “I Am” often makes clear that you are not, else you wouldn’t have to say it and it wouldn’t be so shockingly viral-worthy when you do. If you truly were whomever or whatever you’re chanting, you wouldn’t need to chant about it, else it would be a redundant speech act that violates the communication norm of not adding information the listener already knows. Instead, it announces that, despite some kind of difference, there is an equivalency that is more important or salient. In this way, “I Am” works kind of like a retweet.

We are all bandwagon jumpers, and we are all annoyed by those who jump on after us.

Solidarity, given that it is a matter of prioritizing the collective over the individual, seems like it must be inherently self-effacing. So when people seem overeager to get in on hot “I am ___” hashtags and wave their personal flag of sympathy, it can make their gesture seem bogus, self-serving, even though their feelings are almost certainly not in bad faith. As Amanda Hess points out, piling on to an “I Am ___” meme is a way of “drawing attention to both the speaker and the subject” simultaneously; it may be that egotism and activism, sympathy and self-satisfaction are ultimately inseparable. Can you announce your solidarity without canceling it in that same gesture? Does unrecognized, unacknowledged solidarity actually exist? Or is solidarity nothing more in the end than that reciprocal recognition? Is solidarity even relevant to the work of actually making things different, better? Isn’t it the end, not the means?

When I was in high school, a friend of mine committed suicide. He was not an especially close friend, but we were much closer than the people who were eager to announce their friendship in the aftermath and “get in on the tragedy,” as it seemed to me then. Where were they before, when their sympathy might have mattered to my friend? I somewhat glibly thought that those people felt entitled to inclusion in the grief that had become a sort of morbid trend, a group phenomenon of precisely the sort that my late friend probably felt largely excluded from. The popular kids appropriate everything, I thought.

The outpouring of grief suspended school activities for a couple of days, and lots of people would just leave class to seek counseling from the psychologists they brought in, or to simply just hang out with their friends and avoid being alone. But the solidarity was pretty shallow, as solidarity goes, and hierarchies of popularity (and ability, and class, and so on) went on undisrupted. They proved resilient enough to accommodate the most radical of exoduses.


On The Popularity OF “I Am” / “We Are”