“What social media is ostensibly out to do is share a digital version of our actual lives,” says Neistat, 34, who became an early social media celebrity by documenting his own. “But on a network like Instagram, I’m sharing a carefully sculptured version of my actual life — not my life itself.”
You’ve heard this complaint before, of course. It’s the chief existential unease of a generation aging into adulthood with social media, noting (with ever-growing alarm) the discrepancies between their experienced reality and the photos in their social feeds. Just last week, Neistat himself released a highly-hyped app called Beme, promising to free us all from social media chicanery; Neistat swears that Beme is the first app in this wealfie-sending, humblebragging world to capture and share life authentically.
In one of Neistat’s recent dispatches, he stands in Beme’s exposed-brick offices, talking to someone so absorbed in his phone he doesn’t seem to hear: “Hey,” Neistat says, the mundaneness palpable. “You getting out of here?”
These questions of authenticity and honest self-presentation far predate Beme – and the Internet itself. Plato and Aristotle were debating this stuff back when the only “social network” was your local agora.
More recently, they were on the mind of Norwegian filmmaker Shaun Higton, whose 2014 short on a man’s imploding life — and his parallel, upbeat Facebook status updates — propelled him to worldwide YouTube fame.
“FINALLY SINGLE!!” The guy writes, when his girlfriend cheats on him.
“Quit my dead-end job,” he later lies, and watches the likes pour in.
The conceit of the film and its follow-up coverage is that everyone’s faking their Facebook lives; that there’s something uniquely dishonest or duplicitous about social media that transforms us from real, authentic people to something airbrushed and plasticized.
That wisdom is so well-worn, in fact, that it’s become it’s own kind of meme: On YouTube, you’ll find hundreds of funny clips comparing Snapchat or Instagram or Tinder to “reality.” In these tellings, real-life is often boring or messy — but it has the hint of truth. Of Neistat’s “authenticity.”
“Authenticity is a weird concept,” laughs Jenny Davis, a sociologist at James Madison University. “It’s socially constructed. It’s not a real thing.”
As Davis explains it, an “authentic” person would be someone who never plays a role, which is simply impossible. Whenever a person is in a social situation — even with an intimate, like a family member or a friend — she’s inherently performing a character, a slightly more palatable version of herself. (Sociologists have accepted this theory as law since the late 1950s, though Shakespeare was arguably on it before anybody else.)
Think about it: You act differently with your mother than you do with your boss, and you follow rules and norms and fashions with which you might not strictly agree. You act nice towards neighbors you hate. You say you’re doing “pretty good” when you feel like crying. It’s the toll you pay, in short, to live in a polite and functional human society.
No one is ever truly “authentic”: and that’s an unequivocally positive, prosocial thing.
Still, it’s uncomfortable to realize that everyone around us is performing a role, exactly as we’re performing. It means we never necessarily know the whole “truth,” or understand our loved ones in their entirety. Studies have shown, for instance, that while virtually everyone polishes their own Facebook profile, they disdain anyone else who does the same.
The selfies, the filters, the thirsty status updates: Each of these breaks the cardinal rule of a very ancient social game. You can and must “fake” your identity, just to survive, but no one’s supposed to see you play.
This is where Beme becomes a very interesting, if very confusing, experiment. See, putting the whole “authenticity” construct aside for a minute, Neistat and his co-founder, Matt Hackett, essentially want to calculate the sensation of uncalculatedness.
“Beme serves a real purpose,” explains Davis, the sociologist. “It helps re-establish this fiction [of authenticity] that’s been threatened by Facebook and other social networks.”
To engineer unengineeredness, Neistat and Hackett bust out a handful of technological novelties. Like Vine, Beme trades in short videos. Like Snapchat, those videos disappear. Unlike anything else in this market, however, Beme captures its four-second videos when the user covers her iPhone’s proximity sensor. The phone vibrates, the screen goes black, and four seconds of video take off into the ether. You can’t review or edit the footage; it is, Neistat says, far more like a real-life, real-time interaction.
Most users don’t communicate much, in these four-second blips. But the mere fact that they’ve chosen Beme is its own sort of ironic asterisk: By using Beme, as opposed to some other app, you tell your viewers you don’t really care about “all this.”
It’s the apathy that makes you look authentic.
Oddly, Neistat’s personal approach to Beme has been anything but apathetic. While he’s billed the app as a sort of way to peek into someone else’s “reality,” he’s used it largely to first-person vlog — to narrate, to an audience, a specific and pre-rehearsed story.
Neistat’s still on Instagram too, of course. On July 25, not long after a Vidcon keynote where he made the case for social authenticity, he posted an artful photo of himself signing an autograph for a young woman who looks on adoringly.
“Isn’t this pic a ‘highly sculpted, calculated’ version of who you are?’ ” asks one annoyed follower. He, much like Neistat himself, fails to realize that the discrepancy is inherent to the human condition — and not the filtered picture.