Social Media and the Eternal Search for Authenticity

In a new article, “Life sucks, coffee helps: Articulating the authentic entrepreneur on YouTube’s girlboss channels”, Ida Roivainen from Tampere University argues that recurring representations of coffee articulate YouTube’s girlbosses as productive and ordinary entrepreneurs who seek belonging and meaning in life. These articulations also express an experience of optimism that seems to offer a promise that authenticity will lead to happiness.

Ida Roivainen is a PhD-student and a part-time teacher at Research Centre Comet, Tampere University. Her thesis is about female YouTubers who call themselves “girlbosses”. Her research interests include visual mobile and media technologies, social media, and new media work.

Originally, I got into YouTube during my bachelor studies. Between procrastination and paper deadlines, I encountered videos where teenage girls and twenty-something women were talking straight to the camera and showing the insides of their handbags: wallet, keys, phone, jewelry, perfume, books, lip gloss… I was puzzled by the triviality of these videos and, yet, at the same time stunned how young women like me were just sharing their personal lives openly with everyone on the Internet. Before YouTube, my closest connection to “real people” showing their “real” lives had been through reality-TV shows, such as Laguna Beach and The Hills broadcasted in the early 2000s. No matter how “real” the people in those shows were, they were still far away from my reality – but the girls on YouTube were something else. They were not superrich kids from California but, mostly, regular young women – whose lives I couldn’t stop watching.

This happened about twelve years ago. Since then, a lot has changed within and across (social) media and my personal relationship with it.

Re-defining media work

Over the last decade, on top of rapid changes with media technologies, Western economies have certainly seen an entrepreneurial renaissance that has brought to the surface many self-made social media entrepreneurs like “The Girlboss” Sophia Amoruso, whose successors I study in my research. Through digitalisation and fragmentation of labour, work has transferred more and more to the virtual world where fluidity of time, location, and space make it easy for people to become digital media workers, freelancers, entrepreneurs, and the like. Social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok have also provided spaces for ordinary women to be able to assume power as both consumers and producers. Not surprisingly, due to the feminised history of the beauty domain, lifestyle channels have grown to be among the most populous and engaging spheres of user-generated content on YouTube and other social media among young women internationally, and in the Nordic countries.

However, many media scholars have shown that particularly women, who produce cultural content online, are working in an increasingly precarious neoliberal environment, where the individual is responsible for their own autonomy, well-being, and success. For example, Brooke Erin Duffy and Ursula Pruchniewska have shown in their study on gender and self-enterprise, that social media work is structured through imperatives that include soft self-promotion, interactive intimacy, and compulsory visibility, among other things. Therefore, seeing success and visibility as results of hard work and passion – and not, for example, bound by privilege and the architecture of algorithmic automation dictated by technology giants – is very meritocratic approach to entrepreneurship. When self-employed digital workers, influencers, and entrepreneurs are left alone to advance their careers in the midst of rising popular misogyny and the absence of job security, it makes one wonder who, actually, are the ones able to produce and monetise content on social media, and with what conditions.

Before starting my PhD and teaching work, I was a journalist who, like many others throughout their 10-year-temporary-zero-contract-freelance-kind of career, fought for every paycheck, lacked job security, and experienced belittling. Mostly the belittling came from male interviewees, some colleagues, and some editors-in-chief, but also from some women. It seemed to be easier being nasty to other women to keep your position in the male-dominated media industry than supporting others, let alone rebel against prevailing structures and power positions. Part of the public job as a young woman was also to take in messages from angry readers who sent personal letters, e-mails, and comments that had nothing to do with my work but rather my gender and looks.

Now, thinking about the millennial content creators – who I not only follow and observe as an outsider but also study and engage with as a researcher – it is not difficult to see the connections between precarious journalistic work and new (social) media work. Though, the difference between me and the women I study is that most of them have learned their work through an unpaid hobby that, over the years, has become a profession they can live off of. Moreover, my work has never been based on my personal life – like social media workers do – but on my educated views and interpretations of other people’s lives and thoughts. So, even when I work in a public domain, and write personal texts like this, I always have the choice not to share.

“Am I actually just faking authentic?”

Research on influencers and other media entrepreneurs have pointed out that in the construction of a successful self-brand, branding the self as authentic is necessary. Representing and performing the authentic self operates as means to achieve entrepreneurial goals in a publicly acceptable manner. Further, authenticity in social media work is also important for creating engaged relationships with followers – and without followers, there is no social media work. In my article, I argue that participating in communicative practices of entrepreneurial femininity also offers girlbosses a promise of happiness if they stay “authentic”.

However, the cruelty of this promise is that sharing the authentic self can become meaningless if the audience doesn’t respond to the content that an influencer or a girlboss shares. This paradox was summarised very well by one of my former Media Studies students, who does activism on social media. After reading articles on the ambivalence of authenticity, the student said something along the lines of:

“I have a crisis. I thought my activism and feminism was genuine and real, but now I wonder, am I actually just faking authentic?”

We pondered this dilemma together with other students in the classroom and came to the conclusion that instead of having a crisis about whether there is something like “real” authenticity, we should rather discuss why it is so important to reach this “real” authenticity in the first place.

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“Life sucks, coffee helps”: Articulating the authentic entrepreneur on YouTube’s girlboss channels

Common depictions of authentic self-presentation on social media are often interpreted through the lens of ambivalence, performance, or some kind of bind. Through the example of millennial women who call themselves girlbosses, this article explores how authenticity is articulated through three levels: productivity, ordinariness, and belonging. The study is part of a larger netnographic project in which 23 YouTube channels and related social media platforms have been observed for two years. Content analyses of observational and interview data suggest the authentic self is often represented and expressed through specific cultural repertoires (e.g., coffee) that articulate girlbosses as productive and ordinary entrepreneurs seeking belonging and meaning. Further, while digital media allows new kinds of entrepreneurship, at the same time, self-employed digital workers, influencers, and entrepreneurs are left alone to advance their careers in the midst of rising popular misogyny and lacking job security. I argue that participating in communicative practices of entrepreneurial femininity offers girlbosses a promise of happiness if they stay “authentic”; and yet, in a cruel way, this promise also prevents itself from actualising.
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“Life sucks, coffee helps”: Articulating the authentic entrepreneur on YouTube's girlboss channels