The book opens by montaging a panoply of examples of authenticity's ubiquity and significance in contemporary life. It then maps how scholars from sundry disciplines have tried to define this slippery concept and historicizes the concept's rise over the centuries, from Jean-Jacques Rousseau onward. The bulk of the chapter assembles the three theoretical pillars of the book: Authenticity conceptualized as the absence of a two-faced self, marketplace motives, and technological standardization. Also abstractly foregrounded here is the concept of authenticity's spatial bias toward societal margins and genealogical bias toward identity origins. The chapter closes by nodding to seminal texts that have blazed similar paths before and then elaborates on the critical media industries studies' production-side method undertaken here via in-depth interviews with 79 professionals in entertainment, technology, advertising, and politics.
Perhaps more than any entertainment genre, authenticity has been venerated as vital to reality television's success, so chapter one investigates how it's actually strategized by producers who cast, shoot, and edit these popular shows. Because relatability and intimacy ascended as cardinal virtues of celebrity, interviewees seek to frame audience identification with rather than adoration of the ordinary "stars" often hailing from marginalized origins. As TV professionals try to excavate that "realness" – from ethnographic sampling to surveillance camerawork to confessional arrangements – authenticity production has to self-efface its own presentations. Their schemes are meant to coax out uninhibited, emotional self-disclosure – a participant with no backstage to retreat to, their once-private lives put out for public viewing – but countervailing trends in the calculated pursuit of fame make that un-self-conscious authenticity harder than ever to harness and project.
Social media carries forward the logics, ideals, and expectations of reality TV into digital domains. Chapter two shows how tech companies design their platforms to demonstrate and facilitate authentic self-performance from users. An amateur model reigns: everyday individuals, rather than professional media companies, creating and circulating popular content, innocent from marketplace motives. We see creators spilling their mundane, backstage lives onto apps owned by gargantuan corporations clinging, conveniently, to garage myth origin fables. The "rough cut" emerges here as the key principle for achieving aesthetic authenticity: a low production-value formula that seems spontaneous, unfiltered, and, hence, unmediated from YouTubers to TikTokkers. And, yet, Silicon Valley has also had to authenticate its own inexorable creep toward commercialization – as both hobbyist creators professionalize, while professing and producing amateurishly, and platforms implement native ad structures to blend in with the "real" content in news feeds.
Popular music is the story of chapter four, where authenticity is widely acclaimed – from fawning Billboard profiles to interviews with artist managers and label executives. An artistic ideal, it ignores societal strictures and capitalist imperatives; courts one's own muse for self-expression (and, in turn, fan identification); and navigates the cultural tensions of mainstream versus underground. Edge-worlds abound with assumed authenticity, as do professionals' efforts to authenticate the spatial and socioeconomic origins of star clients there – from Bon Iver's PR team scripting his debut album winter isolation story to hip-hop's street team seeding strategy. Indeed, it was hip-hop that pointed the way toward commercial embrace – an indispensable recourse once digital distribution decimated record revenues and hastened the need to accept "selling out" through sponsor partnerships and even entire labels financed by brands like Mountain Dew.
Chapter four begins with today's advertising industry upheaval, from digital interactivity to Generation Z cravings to cool-hunting schemes. Here, too, marketplace motives bedevil the advertiser's challenge – hence their "cool sell" ambition to self-efface rational, product-utility appeals – but so does the technological standardization of the McWorld products being peddled. We see efforts to humanize these though craft posturing and brand-anchoring identity origins, from Starbucks' localizing schemes to moralizing histories of humble, mom-and-pop founders (rather than faceless corporate chains). More conspicuous lately, "purpose-driven" poses have ignited controversy: from anti-Trump Super Bowl ads to Pepsi's gauche Black Lives Matter piggybacking to the quasi-feminism espoused by Dove and Gillette. These commodity activism campaigns seek to imbue consumer choice with the authenticity of moral authority, fill the vacuum of lost faith in other societal institutions, and respond to newly politicized cultural domains in hyper-polarized times.
Social media influencing became one of the hottest categories among the authenticity industries in the last decade; chapter five opens by tracing the history of this multibillion-dollar market from WWI propaganda to TikTok's Charli D'Amelio. The chapter illuminates behind-the-scenes processes – from engagement metrics obsession to output exhaustion – in creating less-scripted, seemingly "real" tableaus of increasingly back-staged lives with products embedded. A central tension is that of corporate control versus creative autonomy: how much influencers are allowed to produce sponsored postings off-script. Micro-influencers – with as few as 1,000 followers – are increasingly enlisted, because their familiarity, believability, ordinariness, and unpolished self-aesthetics help navigate the delicate balance of #spon-con ratio. The whole scene is built upon an ideology of aspirational labor, an economy of gig-hustling, and a marketized mentality of self-branding and points toward, once more, a commercialization of once-authentic exercises.
Chapter six briefly tours the dominant rise of performative ideals like intimacy, ordinariness, and spontaneity in electoral campaigns and political culture – archetypes inherited from reality TV and social media culture. Also foregrounded are the countervailing pressures that threaten to compromise political authenticity: namely, a two-faced candidate self, torn between base purity and centrist accommodation in polarized times, and marketplace motives, post-Citizens United, where small, grassroots donors scan as more authentic than backroom billionaires. Political consultants reveal their tactics to authenticate: from ad cliches in "realistic" settings like the main street diner and factory floor to back-staging lifestyle habits and press access to anchoring identity origins with rural, small-town bias. All this, however, represents the triumph of Rousseauian indulgence at the expense of Enlightenment sobriety: a politics of style for emotional engagement and consumer self-discovery, not rational petition and voter self-governance.
Populism animates and is animated by the ideals of political authenticity and chapter seven disentangles the nationalistic substance and rhetorical style defining this recent tide. Within digital politics, especially, this has been mythologized and strategized: from Howard Dean's blogger-netroots run through to Michael Bloomberg's army of meme-making influencer shills, we've seen crowdsourced flows, displaced journalists, increased output, and rough cut aesthetics all forcefully operative. These dimensions set the stage for Donald Trump's emblematic triumph over Hillary Clinton: his raw, emotionally viral performance of authenticity (via both amateurish social media style and anti-PC substance) besting an opponent more scrutinized for calculating, two-faced-self reinvention than any woman in political history. Yet Trump ultimately delivered big for economic elites by talking like a blue-collar boor; a cultural populism that enabled policymaking detrimental to the very working-class folk who supposedly swooned to it.
A brief, concluding chapter refreshes the many dots connected across media, culture, and politics in the panoramic preceding pages by restating the book's central theses about authenticity: that it represents a great (if not always good), collective yearning for self-autonomy from social pressures, commercial necessity, and technologized landscapes and that it finances a wide array of backstage scheming by campaign consultants, advertising executives, social media company leadership, and entertainment industry gatekeepers.