The Authenticity Industries
Keeping it "Real" in Media, Culture, and Politics
Michael Serazio



Our Enduring Quest for Authenticity

This above all: to thine own self be true,

And it doth follow, as the night the day,

Thou canst not then be false to any man . . .

—POLONIUS, Hamlet, act 1, scene 3

Authenticity. If you can fake that, the rest will take care of itself.

—SETH GODIN, marketing guru1

A few decades into the twenty-first century, America obsesses over authenticity.

It can be felt in contexts far and wide, in cultures high and low, and is affirmed as both profound and superficial. It animates thirty years’ worth of reality TV programming and fuels the explosive popularity of TikTok. It characterizes former president Donald Trump’s willful disregard for political correctness (and spelling, grammar, and punctuation), as it did the vague vibe that more voters could see themselves cracking a beer with George W. Bush than with Al Gore. It inspires giant corporations toward political activism in ways that few brands dared before and buttresses a multibillion-dollar influencer industry of everyday folks shilling their friends with #spon-con. And in pop music, it is cited as the source of Bruce Springsteen’s blue-collar credibility as well as hip-hop’s doctrinaire injunction to “keep it real.”

But authenticity is not actually real.

Or, at least, it doesn’t exist objectively—that is, as some quality inherent in anything complimented as such. In the examples above, and many more to follow, this book will show how authenticity gets made, by talking with producers who cast reality television, technologists who design social media platforms, music industry leaders who manage artists, advertising executives who strategize brands, influencers who pose with products, and political consultants who run campaigns. These are the professionals who construct, communicate, and accentuate authenticity on behalf of their clients. And this book is a study of the mediated work they do behind the curtain.

The “mediated” part will be foregrounded throughout, because staging authenticity is, paradoxically, a project of creating that which seems unmediated. Social media’s intrusion into any and all walks of life and work amplified this imperative—and scaffolded the architecture to enable it—but the yearning has been many decades in the making, pre-Friendster.

Back in the 1960s, one philosopher lamented how society had devolved from a more authentic lived experience into a passive, screen-dependent one.2 Around the same time, another public intellectual similarly warned of a growing spectacle of “pseudo” events: news, images, and celebrity affairs concocted for the sake of the camera-world.3 They were reporting from the dawn of a new TV age. A half-century later, as social distancing further atomized humanity amidst a global pandemic, our Zoom and FaceTime sessions fulfilled these bleak prophecies rather literally. Lives once lived in three dimensions were suddenly rendered depthless.

The pursuit of authenticity is, therefore, an effort to recover what remains human within us, at a time when society, commerce, and technology are grafted onto how we interface with the world. Authenticity asks what fundamentally drives us: internal, autonomous stirrings of self-actualization or acquiescence to social decorum and material needs? The more public that once-private lives become, the more that market logic seeps into our thinking and relations, the more that sameness and predictability are offered up by cultural environments—the more we’re left searching for something “real” to grab onto and predicate an identity upon.

Authenticity is, therefore, nothing short of the central moral framework of our time: a quasi-religion for self-discovery; a way of coping with the conditions, anxieties, and external pressures of contemporary reality through ideals and pretenses of higher purpose and inner meaning. And an industry stands ready to sell us precisely that product.

Get Real

Throughout those early decades of the twenty-first century, the signs of that authenticity obsession dotted the media landscape, in ways both silly and revealing.

Time magazine, venerable scorekeeper of mainstream zeitgeist, declared it one of ten world-changing ideas.4 In Netflix’s The Circle, a reality show where new neighbors interact only online for competitive ratings—a meta-meditation on social media posturing—slicked-back bro Joey Sasso chalked up his victory to effortless authenticity: “I didn’t have a strategy because I just always knew I had to be myself and I don’t want to overthink anything.”5

NBA legend LeBron James scored props for not outsourcing to his publicity team those “authentic” Instagram glimpses of his backstage life (lip-syncing raps! texts from Mom!).6 An Adweek cover profiling actress Jennifer Lopez as “Brand Visionary” feted her in all the clichéd puff-piece ways—“both glamorous and authentic . . . appealingly aspirational and accessible”—with the star singing along: “I’m real. That was important to me—to stay connected to my roots and not ever change or make what people said or thought about me influence who I really was inside.”7 Even Buckingham Palace started angling for “more authenticity” online, posting childhood photos of Queen Elizabeth and home interiors kept hidden for decades.8

Among celebrities, authenticity was aesthetically affirmed through acts of disclosure, imperfection, and relatability: late-night comedians broadcasting nationally from their living rooms and TV stars unabashedly owning naturally gray roots and makeup-free selfies on social. This “aspirational realness” defined certain beauty and fashion brands, shooting models in “everyday places [like] urban street corners with parked cars and trash bags in full view.”9

In journalism, Vice’s CEO touted authenticity as their “magic elixir,” and former CNN head Jeff Zucker explained the network’s tonal shift away from sober impartiality to more opinionated content, informal language, and “emotional rawness” likewise: “One of the things I’ve tried to encourage is authenticity and being real. If we pretend not to be human, it’s not real.”10

Out in Silicon Valley, a certificate of blockchain-based authenticity for nonfungible tokens drove digital art prices skyward, while a disposal camera emulator app, backed by lucrative venture capital, recreated the serendipitous delight of documenting nightlife escapades—authentically unfiltered, in the moment, rather than trying to perfect the performance of them with retakes and retouches.11 More successful still, tens of millions of Gen Zers downloaded an app enjoining them to “BeReal” by showing friends just how mundane everyday lives could be.12

Within management journals, scholarly articles about authenticity more than doubled in the 2010s and a healthy portion of Forbes’ SEO content mill proselytized its market value.13 Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg leaned into the trend, stressing that “leaders should strive for authenticity over perfection.”14 Even formal faith could not resist the seductive gospel: “In the search for sharing, for ‘friends,’ there is the challenge to be authentic and faithful, and not give in to the illusion of constructing an artificial public profile for oneself,” Pope Benedict exhorted. “Everyone is confronted by the need for authenticity.”15

In the past decade, failures of authenticity abounded as well: Scarlett Johansson was cast as the Japanese lead in a manga adaption; the Oberlin College cafeteria slapped pulled pork and coleslaw on ciabatta and called it a “banh mi”; and an Oprah-endorsed bestselling novel about Mexican migrants, written by a White lady, flubbed key details.16

Online, bunk circulated swiftly and convincingly. There was, of course, the great 2016 election disinformation crackup, wherein Russia seeded actual “fake news”—not to be confused with Trump’s hijacking of the phrase for unflattering news—which Facebook and Twitter decried an “inauthenticity” problem.17 Domestically, hundreds of “pink slime” propaganda operations popped up, posing as independent local news sites.18

Voice falsification was possible using as little as sixty seconds of machine-learned listening and the democratization of AI-deepfake tools heralded plausible video imitations of not just Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg—as early viral hits demonstrated—but any celebrity or noncelebrity who one might have pornographic imagination for.19 In advance of the 2020 election, one tech nonprofit launched the emblematically named “Reality Defender” digital scanning tool to detect and expose such meddling: “The line between the real and fake is rapidly vanishing with enormous consequences to our society and democracy,” its press release lamented.20

Indeed, as media scholar Gunn Enli forewarned, the more “unreal, staged, and manipulated” our mediated culture becomes, the greater the hope that authenticity might quench a thirst for what had been lost.21 But what do we actually mean by authenticity—what does it signify on its own and how does it signify for us?

Defining Qualities of an Evasive Ideal

This panoply of examples, many previewing what later chapters will elaborate on, shows how slippery it is to categorize authenticity, as well as its ubiquity and centrality. It encompasses both Sarah Palin’s hockey mom shtick and Bernie Sanders’ undeterred legislative consistency; the Volkswagen Beetle’s hippie roots and Harley Davidson’s leathery ethos; Johnny Cash and Deepak Chopra; dive bars and farmers markets and greasy spoons; Bhutan, Cuba, and Williamsburg, Brooklyn. (Well, probably not Williamsburg anymore—Bushwick, maybe? Bed-Stuy?)

A brief taxonomic detour might help—mapping, theoretically, how scholars from varying disciplines have tried to nail down this mercurial term over the years. Rich Silverstein, creative director of a prominent San Francisco ad agency, similarly sputters when I ask him to define authenticity: “It immediately feels right in the gut—it’s just immediate. It’s just—there’s no words for it, because you feel it.”22 And yet a semiotician as skilled as Silverstein surely can’t shrug off as ineffable what also happens to be the first commandment of his life’s work, advertising.

Etymologically, the word originates from the Greek authentes, which translates to “master” or “one acting on [one’s] own authority”—a heritage of self-actualization we’ll see traced through more recent contexts, in part because quelling suspicion of motives is essential to authentic performance and therefore key to the industrial work staging the appearance of it.23

In distant centuries, the term retained a more formal or technical quality, likely owing to its museum use: Was this artistic object, created by Vermeer or Matisse, really what it claimed to be and thus worth paying for?24 This first kind of authenticity can be evaluated factually by experts based upon an indexical link to the referent represented and, thus, a point, place, or person of provenance it emerges from.25 This is taken up, strategically, by the authenticity industries in their efforts to affirm the ideal origins of a client entity.

On the other hand, authenticity can be aesthetically approximated rather than verifiably absolute: It can fit our sense of what something seems like it should be rather than actually, necessarily, being that. Rather than binary, authenticity here is iconic, sensory, and subjectively graded, usually based upon stylized cues: Does the entity fit observers’ abstract expectations and projections for the form or genre?26 For example, if that Old Guitarist really is a Picasso, how come the perspective isn’t cubistically deformed like we’re used to seeing?

Authenticity, though, doesn’t just hang on a wall, drape from one’s shoulders, or sit on a dinner plate; it’s also expressive in a social sense. This second kind of authenticity identifies an “original and unadulterated selfhood” and rejects “any force or process that separates or alienates the individual from their true identity, character, or sense of purpose,” as scholars summarize.27

An authentic speaker sounds uncontrived, natural, spontaneous—never giving a performance and always delivering from some core experience of the world.28 Reflecting this, the literary critic Lionel Trilling severs sincerity from authenticity, with the former term (“a congruence between avowal and actual feeling”) capturing the ideal of presenting yourself honestly in public as you truly are.29 Such is the fine line, we’ll see, that politicians, reality stars, and you—across all your social media accounts—must navigate.

Along with those aesthetic affectations and that interpersonal integrity, authenticity might, third and finally, be emphasized in terms of motivational autonomy: How much does behavior seem to stem from extrinsic forces, like punishment or reward, rather than inherent inclinations and personal passions?30 Philosopher Charles Guignon categorizes this as the “master dichotomy” of modernity: “What is inner is what is true, genuine, pure, and original, whereas what is outer is a mere shadow, something derived, adulterated and peripheral. . . . To be authentic, you must be in touch with what lies within, that is, the inner self, the self no one sees except you.”31

Authenticity is tallied here as fidelity to one’s internal compass and values rather than adapting identity to cultural norms or outright greed.32 A work of art, for example, is authentic if it is uniquely true to itself: accommodating the independent muse of a single-minded creator; transgressing accepted formulaic limits as needed; and surely never done to appease any buyer or collector.33 We’ll hear this rhapsodized by rock stars and rappers alike in chapter 3.

Treating prior scholarship as word-salad thesaurus, authenticity registers across a wide range of overlapping synonyms, alphabetically assembled here: amateur, communal, consistent, craft, credible, direct, ethical, faithful, genuine, honest, human, innate, innocent, intimate, legitimate, naïve, natural, nonconforming, nonstandard, ordinary, organic, original, pure, raw, real, rooted, simple, sincere, spontaneous, traditional, true, unadulterated, unaffected, uncorrupted, unfiltered, and, of course, unmediated. The persistence of those “un-” prefixes attests to authenticity so often being a term of contrast: a positional social good, endlessly Othering, to delineate difference among people’s penchants and practices (especially consumer) and hierarchically implying judgment.34

“You can only truly be an authentic person,” the cultural critic Andrew Potter wittily discerns, “as long as most of the people around you are not.”35 Ironically, then, for all its self-aggrandizing claims to deep durability, authenticity is ever-unstable—“a relative concept which is generally used in absolutist terms”—both contextually dependent and subject to the vagaries of time and taste.36

Perhaps above all, authenticity must be effortless: “a self that appears to simply be, rather than a self that is accomplished,” for to expose that labor of authenticity calls into question the claim of accomplishment as well as our collective faith in the concept itself.37

Rather impishly, that’s exactly the ambition of this book.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau Can’t Even

How did authenticity get here? When did it get here? Thousands of years ago, it would have had decidedly little use. Identity was so intertwined with and foreordained by family, tribe, and gods that a person wasn’t even seen as independent from that interlocking cosmos of belonging.38

The philosopher Charles Taylor dates authenticity’s conceptual birth to the late 1700s, when Enlightenment individualism fused with the soul-archaeology of the Romantic era.39 Personal aspiration no longer had to be sacrificed, selflessly, at the altar of some prevailing, sacred social order; thanks to Martin Luther, God Herself could be found one-on-one, outside the cathedral, in the stillness of contemplation, in the hush of an inner voice and the feelings that it stirred.40

Around this time, as interiority was established as a legit spatial-psychological domain, the self, itself, emerged as an “autonomous noun” and got imprinted on the cultural and physical landscape: autobiographies, introspective literature, portraits for posterity, individual plates and chairs at meals, and private rooms within the home.41 On the plus side—for the Romantics—came a philosophical license to zealously defend that self against any external forces that might impede creativity, freedom, and actualization; alas, this came at the cost of a complete collapse of the hierarchy of meaning-making institutions and the shared social sensibilities structured by them.42 You were now on your own, authenticity shrugged—for better or worse.

If anyone would’ve swooned at that prospect, it was the patron saint and intellectual godfather of authenticity, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Though he apparently never uses the term directly, it undeniably animates his being and informs his core ideas: the embrace of an essential inner light; misgivings about societal strictures; nostalgia for childhood spontaneity; and veneration of capital-n Nature.43 His most famous phrase—“man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains”—often shorthands an entire philosophical schema and telegraphs his low regard for repressive rules and social decorum.44

Rousseau contributed vitally to that introspective turn in human culture—liberating self-discovery as morally righteous duty, rather than being molded by outside pressures, and expressing yourself “openly, with full candor, and without any embellishing or editing.”45 As he autobiographically confesses, “Thrown, in spite of myself, into the great world, without possessing its manners, and unable to acquire or conform to them, I took it into my head to adopt manners of my own, which might enable me to dispense with them.”46 This is just a grandiloquent, eighteenth-century version of the reality TV cliché, “I didn’t come here to make friends.”

In delineating the real from the artificial, what matters most for Rousseau—and what we’ll hear echoed, especially in later chapters on political communication strategy—was feelings, not rationality.47 For just as children, in their purity, have yet to learn the “perfidious veil of politeness” that civilization imposes, so, too, should adults aim to emulate the supposedly noble savage, outside of or predating corrupt modern life and its culturally refined customs.48 A solitary life, off-the-radar, perambulating Walden Pond, is about the best one can salvage.49 Admire those who seem motivationally sovereign: those defined by “perfect autonomy of [their] consciousness,” without regard for others or outside demands.50 All of this, by the way, makes the truly authentic person a real jerk to deal with.

Yet Rousseau’s impulses are, nonetheless, understandable, given the pressures of modern life, which would have been first crystallizing around his time. For authenticity, as a concept, was produced by and reacting to changes in the Western world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: “the slow recession of belief in a cosmic order with fixed and unquestionable roles, the countervailing idea of individual selfhood . . . the rise of capitalism and wage labor, the growing authority of science and Enlightenment appeals to rationality,” as scholars Meredith Salisbury and Jefferson Pooley summarize.51 In particular, urbanization, commercialization, and industrialization—that trifecta of modern woe to be disentangled shortly—contributed to the increasing centrality of authenticity within lived experience.52

Perhaps that was the ideal that could help piece back together a Humpty Dumpty sense of self—a lost wholeness, a coherence fragmented by these forces.53 The anxieties impressing upon authenticity would only increase in the past hundred years, becoming, by midcentury, “the defining concept” of the era.”54 And Rousseau’s ideas remain the still-timeless wellspring for appreciating authenticity’s appeal within and against contemporary culture: the starting point, philosophically, for venerating spontaneity, emotion, and unfiltered engagement with the world.

Backstage Scheming with the Two-Faced Self

“While ‘the savage lives within himself, [the] sociable man, always outside himself, can only live in the opinion of others.’55 So sneers Rousseau, who gazed back upon the “natural state” of our ancient ancestors with wondrous envy: Their limited contact with each other, in the epoch of hunting and gathering, limited the benefit of chasing distinguishing qualities for tribal admiration.56 Then the development of cities, in the history of humankind, introduced the weight of anonymity: “People were no longer quite sure where they belonged, what their futures held for them, or who their neighbors were,” the anthropologist Charles Lindholm writes, a diagnosis as relevant today as centuries ago. “They had begun the irreversible plunge into modernity, which can be succinctly defined as the condition of living among strangers.”57

Seeds of doubt sprouted about the “staged, prepared, and performed” character of inauthentic communication in those public spaces.58 One’s true self could only be found in private life, set apart from the “artificial existence” of “playing games and reciting lines.”59 Rousseau reserves special disgust for those unoriginal, “other-directed,” conformist types: those “whose whole being is attuned to catch the signals sent out by the consensus of his fellows . . . to the extent that he is scarcely a self at all, but rather, a reiterated impersonation.”60 The poet Oscar Wilde likewise grieves, “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.”61

For half a century, scholars have drawn upon the ideas of sociologist Erving Goffman to map these dynamics, and his work remains inimitable to understanding authenticity, in large part because routine habits on social media render explicit his pre-digital insights about everyday life. Goffman furnished this enduring metaphor about human experience: that our interpersonal interactions are like theater, projecting particular versions of ourselves for particular audiences based upon the roles we assume appropriate.

To influence others’ impressions, we scheme these frontstage “performances” decorously—acting one way in front of a boss, another way in front of a child—while privately backstage (among intimate associates or simply by ourselves, in our own minds), that charade might well be contradicted or even castigated.62 Absent any such “pretense and superficiality,” this backstage entices: “It is here that illusions and impressions are openly constructed. . . . Here the performer can relax; he can drop his front, forgo speaking his lines, and step out of character.”63 Here the authenticity industries researcher snoops.

Because of that, backstage access must be jealously guarded, lest audiences catch a glimpse of the true(ish) self of the performer—and the more famous a person is, the less time and space they tend to be afforded for social seclusion.64 Yet this “informal, familiar, relaxed” version of the performer is also what the authenticity industries increasingly try to perform: frontstaging the backstage, if you will, especially as media tools afford and audiences demand something more “real” behind the pseudo-event.65 The more that content from private life is both possible for public view and (for now) still generally assumed innocent—rather than calculated—the more that mundane and vulnerable revelations staged there can authenticate those with instrumental ambitions.

Thus, this book follows in the tradition of applying Goffman’s theories of microsocial interaction to entire fields of image-making collective labor like entertainment, technology, advertising, and politics.66 Throughout, I’ll shorthand this problem as the “two-faced self,” contrasting my interviewees’ counterefforts to stage their clients as “real”—meaning (projected as) the same both on- and offstage.

Yet because authenticity needs to seem effortless, the blood, sweat, and tears of all that self-work has to remain invisible, if the actor is to come off as “natural.”67 You could call this strategy “performing-not-performing,” where a person always seems to be themselves, no matter who they’re conversing with.68 This, by the way, is why politicians forever face dubious audiences, assuming the same scripted speech has been given before: Extemporaneity, by contrast, indexes sincerity, so it’s a great plan to come across as impromptu.69

As chapters 1 and 3 will show, this also holds true in entertainment, namely the artistic ideal of expunging the opinions of others and society in order to “let the unconscious creative process work itself out.”70 As rapper Method Man righteously avers: “Basically, I make music that represents me. Who I am. I’m not gonna calculate my music to entertain the masses. I gotta keep it real for me.”71

Cash Rules Everything Around Me

“What is authentic?” novelist Michael Crichton asks. “Anything that is not devised and structured to make a profit. Anything that is not controlled by the corporations. Anything that exists for its own sake, that assumes its own shape.”72

This second lament of inauthenticity—one that I’ll term “marketplace motives” throughout the book—has centuries-old roots, much like the two-faced self. One might trace it back to the development of capitalism itself, and the attendant estrangement of societies, where meaning was evacuated from work, save for the necessary paycheck it produced.73

Such alienation stems from the feeling that we really only relate to one another through the nihilistic mechanisms of the marketplace and the “devilish autonomous energy” of money—an inauthentic energy “that was seen to change everything into something it was not,” as Karl Marx bemoaned.74 Work, moreover, often demands a two-faced self, suppressing resentment and shamming servility to supervisors, while an authentic self is “not defined by your job, or your function, or your role,” TV psychologist Dr. Phil consoles. “It is all your strengths and values that are uniquely yours and need expression, versus what you have been programmed to believe that you are ‘supposed to be and do.’75

But the wonders that paycheck can buy! Wouldn’t consumption—a Netflix binge, an overnight Prime delivery, some nice avocado toast—feed the hunger for authenticity, even if our roles in the means of production didn’t? Alas, the Frankfurt School, a group of Marxist philosopher-critics, suggest no such satisfaction, savaging the culture industry: for in pursuing the lowest common denominator for mass audiences, media content gets homogeneously churned off assembly lines and panders rather than enlightens—an “organ of soft domination”—lulling the proletariat into docile conformity.76

For these dissenters, authenticity was forever tainted by “the logic and constraints of capitalism, a force that was determined to process and standardize art, products, and services at the expense of their genuine and original qualities.”77 Consumer culture might tantalize gratification, but it delivers only “store-bought baubles” that are “pre-packaged, mass-produced, and shallow”; Amazon offers speedy, never existential, fulfillment.78 And the more lonely and alienating working lives become, the more junk is bought to placate an insatiable inner being.79

For shopping sheep, it’s a never-ending, unscratchable itch: “members of the herd, cogs in the machine, victims of mindless conformity [who] lead vacuous, hollowed-out lives ruled by shallow, materialistic values.”80 The quest for authenticity is, then, a countercultural yearning to experience individual identity outside the spectacle of commodities—which cues, in turn, the marketplace’s effort to satisfy those alternative longings, often through craft production pretenses, as we’ll see in chapter 4.81

This has also defined creative desires in the myth of an independent bohemian genius uncorrupted by compromising commercial constraints.82 We see it in the adoration of entrepreneurialism that fetishizes the “free” laborer side-hustling their way to the American Dream, one Uber fare at a time.83 In social media and influencer practices of later chapters, these values presume a continuum with the creativity and amateurism of authenticity located at one end and the promotion, commerce, and professionalism of capitalism diametrically opposed at the other.84 As media scholar Sarah Banet-Weiser notes, all this makes for an uneasy tension between art’s innocent ambitions to achieve “enlightenment, transcendence, and the sublime” and the market economy’s grubby, greedy goals of profit, through that which is “planned, fake, calculating, and marketed.”85

This formulaic quality of cultural production—hedging against the risk of all-too-frequent flops in the entertainment business—conscripts and contains the authentic “singularity” of a given work and the authentic inventiveness of its artist, whose ambition ought to be as “self-defining” as the opus generated.86 Ironically, of course, artists whose authenticity is beyond reproach can actually bag more money for their work, but once it appears they’re doing it for the dough—and not “from the heart”—it costs both cred and cash.87

To be sure, critics have been slagging “selling out” for nearly two centuries, when capitalism and industrialization intruded upon the tradition of aristocratic patronage and creators suddenly had to concern themselves with, and contort themselves to, popular preferences.88 It plagues allegations of abandoning values for wealth or power in politics, and these allegations persist as loudly in chapter 3’s world of pop, where fans sweat beloved musicians chasing mainstream popularity, “going commercial,” and abandoning die-hard loyalists who loved the first album before they blew up.89

Whether it’s a candidate for office or a rocker onstage, a shared suspicion holds that someone “who should be trusted to act independently is no longer doing so.”90 To be authentic, then, is to reject bourgeois benefits—to remain “a nonconformist, a solitary rebel at odds and out of step with the mainstream,” never allowing “creativity to atrophy in the name of comfort and security.”91

Yet while marketplace motives recur throughout, as a mistrust the authenticity industries must strategize around, this book also interrogates whether “selling out” still has any currency as a catchphrase or underlying concept of derision, now that we’re so steeped in neoliberal logics. It assumes a binary of authenticity versus complicity, when selling out has adeptly replenished capitalism’s co-optation of counterculture for several decades.92 Indeed, the landscape illustrated in the chapters that follow show advertising infiltrating social media feeds, political activism, and interpersonal relations, even as it tries to “blend in” with that native content and those experiences.

When market mentalities are ubiquitous within and inextricable from those culture industries, when “commercialization and self-branding are hardwired into the technologies made for self-expression,” and when Gen Z seems to shrug about the trade-off, selling out no longer retains the same meaning, much less fortitude to preserve non-market-based spaces and motivations.93 If resistance to selling out is a luxury relic of an earlier, less ad-choked era, how can one afford not to sell out these days?


1. David Boyle, Authenticity (London: Harper Perennial, 2004), 56.

2. Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (New York: Zone Books, 1967).

3. Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image (New York: Vintage, 1961).

4. John Cloud, “Synthetic Authenticity,” Time, March 13, 2008,,28804,1720049_1720050_1722070,00.html.

5. Scott Nover, “The Circle’s Joey Sasso Preaches the Gospel of Being Real Online,” Adweek, 2020,

6. Scott Cacciola, “LeBron James Is [Three Fire Emoji] Online,” New York Times, December 17, 2019,

7. Lisa Granatstein, “Why JLo’s Star Won’t Stop Rising,” Adweek, September 19, 2021,

8. Erin Vanderhoof, “How the Royal Family Is Stepping Up Its Social Media during Quarantine,” Vanity Fair, May 5, 2020,

9. Sarah Todd, “Quartzy: The Aspirational Realness Edition,” Quartz, November 15, 2019,

10. Trey Williams, “Vice Media CEO Nancy Dubuc Lays Out New Executive Team as Refinery29 Deal Closes,” The Wrap, November 4, 2019,; Jeremy Barr, “The New CNN Is More Opinionated and Emotional: Can It Still Be ‘The Most Trusted Name in News’?,” Washington Post, May 12, 2021,

11. Garrett Sloane, “Tacos for $187,336 and Digital Basketballs for $69,000 . . . the Crypto-Bubble Comes to Marketing,” Advertising Age, March 16, 2021,; Taylor Lorenz, “Are Disposables the Future of Photo Sharing?,” New York Times, February 25, 2021,

12. Kimeko McCoy, “Surging Photo-Sharing App BeReal Has Brands like Chipotle, e.l.f. Cosmetics Rushing to Understand Platform’s Appeal with Gen Z,” Digiday, October 5, 2022,

13. David W. Lehman et al., “Authenticity,” Academy of Management Annals 13, no. 1 (2019): 1; Joshua Benton, “An Incomplete History of Forbes.Com as a Platform for Scams, Grift, and Bad Journalism,” NiemanLab, February 9, 2022,

14. Andrew Brodsky, “Communicating Authentically in a Virtual World,” Harvard Business Review, January 20, 2022,

15. Pope Benedict, “Truth, Proclamation and Authenticity of Life in the Digital Age,” June 5, 2011,

16. Eliza Berman, “A Comprehensive Guide to the Ghost in the Shell Controversy,” Time, March 29, 2017,; Oberlin College and Conservatory, “Colleges Are Losing Control of Their Story: The Banh-Mi Affair at Oberlin Shows How,” November 13, 2019,; Daniel Hernandez, “‘American Dirt’ Was Supposed to Be a Publishing Triumph: What Went Wrong?,” Los Angeles Times, January 26, 2020,

17. Sarah C. Haan, “Bad Actors: Authenticity, Inauthenticity, Speech, and Capitalism,” 22 University of Pennsylvania Journal of Constitutional Law 619 (2020): 621.

18. Priyanjana Bengani, “As Election Looms, a Network of Mysterious ‘Pink Slime’ Local News Outlets Nearly Triples in Size,” Columbia Journalism Review, August 4, 2020,

19. Jay Owens, “The Age of Post-Authenticity and the Ironic Truths of Meme Culture,” Medium, April 11, 2018,

20. AI Foundation, “Reality Defender 2020, Concerted Effort by the AI Foundation Nonprofit, Kicks Off to Protect US Elections from Deep Fakes and Media Manipulation,” Business Wire, November 5, 2019,

21. Gunn Enli, “‘Trust Me, I Am Authentic!’,” in The Routledge Companion to Social Media and Politics, ed. Axel Bruns et al. (New York: Routledge, 2016), 122.

22. Silverstein. [Note: Last names without page references refer to interviews; see appendix.]

23. Alexander Stern, “Authenticity Is a Sham,” Aeon, April 27, 2021,

24. Lionel Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971), 93.

25. Theo Van Leeuwen, “What Is Authenticity?,” Discourse Studies 3, no. 4 (2001): 392, 393; Kent Grayson and Radan Martinec, “Consumer Perceptions of Iconicity and Indexicality and Their Influence on Assessments of Authentic Market Offerings,” Journal of Consumer Research 31, no. 2 (2004): 298.

26. George E. Newman and Rosanna K. Smith, “Kinds of Authenticity,” Philosophy Compass 11, no. 10 (2016): 611; Michael Beverland, Building Brand Authenticity (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 27.

27. Maiken Umbach and Mathew Humphrey, Authenticity (Cham, Switz.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), 2.

28. Annette Hill, “Reality TV,” in A Companion to Television, ed. Janet Wasko (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005), 462.

29. Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity, 2; Meredith Salisbury and Jefferson Pooley, “The #nofilter Self,” Social Sciences 6, no. 10 (2017): 6.

30. Alice Audrezet, Gwarlann de Kerviler, and Julie Guidry Moulard, “Authenticity under Threat,” Journal of Business Research, 2018, 3; Clayton Fordahl, “Authenticity,” American Sociologist 49, no. 2 (2018): 301.

31. Charles Guignon, On Being Authentic (London: Routledge, 2004), 81–82.

32. Rebecca J. Erickson, “The Importance of Authenticity for Self and Society,” Symbolic Interaction 18, no. 2 (1995): 132; Newman and Smith, “Kinds of Authenticity,” 613.

33. Newman and Smith, “Kinds of Authenticity,” 609; Paul Frosh, “To Thine Own Self Be True,” Communication Review 4 (2001): 542.

34. Umbach and Humphrey, Authenticity, 95, 124.

35. Andrew Potter, The Authenticity Hoax (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2010), 133.

36. Salisbury and Pooley, “The #nofilter Self,” 2, 3; Michael Pickering, “The Dogma of Authenticity in the Experience of Popular Music,” in The Art of Listening, ed. Graham McGregor and R. S. White (London: Croom Helm, 1986), 213.

37. Jenny L. Davis, “Accomplishing Authenticity in a Labor-Exposing Space,” Computers in Human Behavior 28, no. 5 (2012): 2.

38. Guignon, On Being Authentic, 18, 19.

39. Charles Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991), 25.

40. Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity, 2, 26; Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity, 24.

41. Russell Belk, “Brands and the Self,” in The Routledge Companion to Contemporary Brand Management, ed. Francesca Dall’Olmo, Jaywant Singh, and Charles Blankson (New York: Routledge, 2016), 70; Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity, 24–25.

42. Philip Lewin and J. Patrick Williams, “The Ideology and Practice of Authenticity in Punk Subculture,” in Authenticity in Culture, Self, and Society, ed. Phillip Vannini and J. Patrick Williams (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2009), 66; Lehman et al., “Authenticity,” 7; Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity, 46.

43. Guignon, On Being Authentic, 59.

44. Fordahl, “Authenticity,” 302; Charles Lindholm, Culture and Authenticity (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2008), 8.

45. Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity, 27; Guignon, On Being Authentic, 151.

46. Owens, “The Age of Post-Authenticity.”

47. Potter, The Authenticity Hoax, 72.

48. Robert Wokler, Rousseau (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 23–24, 26.

49. Guignon, On Being Authentic, 56.

50. Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity, 62.

51. Salisbury and Pooley, “The #nofilter Self,” 5.

52. Hanno Hardt, “Authenticity, Communication, and Critical Theory,” Critical Studies in Mass Communication 10 (March 1993): 52.

53. Erickson, “The Importance of Authenticity,” 121, 122; Guignon, On Being Authentic, 51.

54. Fordahl, “Authenticity,” 304.

55. Wokler, Rousseau, 64.

56. Wokler, Rousseau, 47, 64.

57. Lindholm, Culture and Authenticity, 3.

58. Martin Montgomery, “The Uses of Authenticity,” Communication Review 4, no. 4 (2009): 460.

59. Guignon, On Being Authentic, 34.

60. Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity, 66.

61. Stern, “Authenticity Is a Sham.”

62. Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (New York: Anchor, 1959), 15, 16, 107.

63. Goffman, The Presentation of Self, 112; David Grazian, “Demystifying Authenticity in the Sociology of Culture,” in Handbook of Cultural Sociology, ed. John R. Hall, Laura Grindstaff, and Ming-Cheng Lo (New York: Routledge, 2010), 194.

64. Goffman, The Presentation of Self, 133.

65. Goffman, The Presentation of Self, 132; Allan Louden and Kirsten McCauliff, “The ‘Authentic Candidate,’” in Presidential Candidate Images, ed. Kenneth Hacker (Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004), 93.

66. Michael Hughes, “Country Music as Impression Management,” Poetics 28, no. 2/3 (2000): 185, 187.

67. Davis, “Accomplishing Authenticity in a Labor-Exposing Space,” 7.

68. Mariah L. Wellman et al., “Ethics of Authenticity,” Journal of Media Ethics: Exploring Questions of Media Morality 35, no. 2 (2020): 71.

69. Gilad Edelman, “Authenticity Just Means Faking It Well,” The Atlantic, April 25, 2019,

70. Guignon, On Being Authentic, 74, 75.

71. Kembrew McLeod, “Authenticity within Hip-Hop and Other Cultures Threatened with Assimilation,” Journal of Communication 49, no. 4 (1999): 140.

72. James H. Gilmore and B. Joseph Pine, Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2007), ix.

73. Hardt, “Authenticity, Communication, and Critical Theory,” 54.

74. Potter, The Authenticity Hoax, 45; Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity, 123; E. Doyle McCarthy, “Emotional Performances as Dramas of Authenticity,” in Authenticity in Culture, Self, and Society, ed. Phillip Vannini and J. Patrick Williams (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2009), 243.

75. Guignon, On Being Authentic, 2; Lindholm, Culture and Authenticity, 6.

76. John Durham Peters, “The Subtlety of Horkheimer and Adorno,’” in Canonic Texts in Media Research, ed. Elihu Katz et al. (Cambridge: Polity, 2003), 63.

77. Gunn Enli, Mediated Authenticity (New York: Peter Lang, 2014), 7.

78. Jefferson Pooley, “The Consuming Self: From Flappers to Facebook,” in Blowing Up the Brand, ed. Melissa Aronczyk and Devon Powers (New York: Peter Lang, 2010), 74.

79. Lindholm, Culture and Authenticity, 53.

80. Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter, Nation of Rebels (New York: HarperBusiness, 2004), 128.

81. Robert Goldman and Stephen Papson, Sign Wars (New York: Guilford Press, 1996), 142; Jacqueline Botterill, “Cowboys, Outlaws and Artists,” Journal of Consumer Culture 7, no. 1 (2007): 109.

82. Bethany Klein, Selling Out (New York: Bloomsbury, 2020), 62.

83. Sarah Banet-Weiser, Authentic (New York: NYU Press, 2012), 118.

84. Brooke Erin Duffy, (Not) Getting Paid to Do What You Love (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017), 7.

85. Banet-Weiser, Authentic, 99; Potter, The Authenticity Hoax, 114.

86. Frosh, “To Thine Own Self Be True,” 542; Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity, 99–100; David Hesmondhalgh, The Cultural Industries, 4th ed. (Los Angeles: Sage, 2019).

87. Gary Alan Fine, “Crafting Authenticity,” Theory and Society 32, no. 2 (2003): 165–66.

88. Klein, Selling Out, 9–10.

89. Klein, Selling Out, 1, 42.

90. Klein, Selling Out, 61.

91. Potter, The Authenticity Hoax, 75.

92. Banet-Weiser, Authentic, 220; Heath and Potter, Nation of Rebels.

93. Mark Bartholomew, Adcreep (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2017), 38; Klein, Selling Out, 158.