A quick scroll through Chicago-based Kelly Larkin’s Instagram account or lifestyle blog, Kelly in the City, is enough to put anyone in a good mood. It’s a blend of bright patterns, fresh and clean interior spaces, and high-quality photos of Larkin, her husband, their toddler daughter, and Noodle the dachshund. The Larkins are aspirational yet accessible, and Kelly Larkin herself, a former journalist and public school teacher, is funny and quick-witted about life and parenting.
So when in 2016 Larkin opened up about how difficult it had been for her to get pregnant, and when in 2018 she wrote in-depth about her repeat struggles with depression, it could easily have seemed jarring to anyone who had been following her Instagram feed of pastel gingham prints and cheery home renovations. And it followed an emotional dilemma for Larkin herself.
‘I admittedly did feel a little dishonest,’ Larkin said in an interview. ‘Over the years, depression and infertility have played major, often all-consuming roles in my life, and blogging about pretty shoes and other frivolous things during those times made me feel inauthentic and as though I was leading a double life.’ She said, ultimately, what pushed her to write about it was advice from a friend that perhaps if she was open about her personal struggles, she might provide solace and hope to others who were going through the same — even if she had no idea who those people are.
Larkin had found herself in a strange new place that digital media has brought upon us: the zone of uncertainty where you don’t quite know you you might be talking to online, where the line between truth and deception is frequently obfuscated, and where we’re simultaneously pulled toward unprecedented ‘transparency’ and the desire to carefully craft our personas to the point of dishonesty. We all now inhabit a world where the idea of the ‘truth’ has completely changed, and as a population of internet users, we aren’t yet on a level where we can process it.
For one, this doesn’t just affect people like Larkin who can call themselves ‘influencers.’ When we fill out social media profiles or post updates, we are in effect creating our own brands. And one study after another indicates that people have no problem admitting those personal brands don’t entirely reflect reality. In 2016 a UK marketing firm called Custard surveyed British internet users and found that fewer than a fifth of them said their social profiles were ‘a completely accurate reflection of me and who I am.’ (The biggest share of respondents said that their profiles were ‘pretty much my life but without the boring bits.’)
At the very least, we put a glossy sheen on things. Facetune, an app that lets mobile phone users smooth out wrinkles and snip out pesky bits of flab in photos, has been the most popular photo and video app on the iPhone for years (and rarely budges from the top 10 apps overall), according to analytics company AppAnnie. Slang terms for actions taken to look more attractive in photos, from ‘skinny arm’ to ‘duckface,’ have long since entered the popular lexicon.
Online dating, perhaps unsurprisingly, is a hotbed of small exaggerations, with a 2007 study from Stanford University finding that two-thirds of participants lied about their weight by at least five pounds and that men tend to add nine-tenths of an inch to their height. But one of the authors of the study, Jeff Hancock, has disagreed that the internet is turning us all into pathological liars. In a 2012 TED talk, he said that ‘despite our intuitions, mine included, a lot of online communication [and] technologically-mediated communication is more honest than face-to-face.’ LinkedIn resumes were more accurate than paper resumes. Dating site users lied, but only by a little bit. Study participants were able to assess a stranger’s personality based only on a Facebook profile, with surprising accuracy.
According to Hancock, this is because digital media leaves the ultimate paper trail. ‘Writing only emerged about 5,000 years ago. So what that means is that all the people before there was any writing, every word that they ever said, every utterance disappeared,’ he said in his TED talk. But that’s changed, he elaborated. ‘We’re entering this amazing period of flux in human evolution where we’ve evolved to speak in a way in which our words disappear, but we’re in an environment where we’re recording everything.’
Hancock theorizes that lying has now become harder, not easier. ‘Now, when you are about to say or do something, we can think, “Do I want this to be part of my legacy? Part of my personal record?”’ he posited. ‘Because in the digital age we live in now, in the networked age, we are all leaving a record.’
Hancock’s talk is now over a half dozen years old, and the years since have seen the emergence of everything from catfishing to deepfakes to fake news. An MIT study has found that falsehoods spread faster than the truth. Research published in a Canadian journal in 2016 found that only 32 percent of people claim to be ‘always honest’ on social media (and how many of them are lying about that, anyway?) and that in turn, most of us are suspicious of how honest others are being. A long New York magazine feature by journalist Max Read at the tail end of 2018 asked, ‘How much of the internet is fake?’ and suggested that we are ‘living less a calculable falsehood and more a particular quality of experience — the uncanny sense that what you encounter online is not ‘real’ but is also undeniably not “fake,” and indeed may be both at once, or in succession, as you turn it over in your head.’
When asked about what’s changed since his talk, Hancock said that there’s a dissonance that arises from the fact that we use the same devices and mediums to connect with the people in our lives that we know intimately, as well as with entities whom we know may not be who they say they are. ‘I think there’s at least two different worlds that coexist on our phone, or on the same sort of feeling of a technology,’ Hancock said in an interview. ‘There’s groups of people that I know in my real life, and I expect to have ongoing relationships with, and there’s people that I have nothing to do with, and it’s very easy to conflate those two right now because, in the same device, maybe within the same minute that I’m talking to [both of them].’
In short: we are far from being able to sort through what constitutes the truth, whether it comes to the news we read or the way we choose to fill out the ‘interests’ sections of our dating profiles. Perhaps our ability to do so is even getting warped. At the very least, we have to process our notion of what’s real and what’s fake in a way that’s unprecedented. We’re well attuned to the fact that there are liars all around us — just look at the cultural sensations that stories like the ‘Soho Grifter’ and Fyre Festival produced — but we’re also lulled into believing things that aren’t true. Ad-supported social media, in the name of increasing the amount of time we spend on its platforms, has a propensity to gently push us into cultural cocoons that validate our existing beliefs and surround us with people who will confirm what we’re inclined to believe, whether it’s true or not.
‘It’s always been the case that humans have been dependent on social ties to gain knowledge and belief,’ Cailin O’Connor, a philosopher of science at the University of California-Irvine, said in a recent interview with Nautilus magazine. ‘There’s been misinformation and propaganda for hundreds of years. If you’re a governing body, you have interests you’re trying to protect. You want to control what people believe. What’s changed is social media and the structure of communication between people. Now people have tremendous ability to shape who they interact with.’
Furthermore, in this environment, being entirely truthful in a way that disrupts our own social media brands can be jarring and even provoke outrage. Digital media isn’t known for its nuance, and the truth can both be difficult to convey and easily misinterpreted, sometimes maliciously. Stacy London, the former host of reality show What Not To Wear and now a prolific fashion influencer with 275,000 followers on Instagram, says she encountered this when she wrote an article for Refinery29 about realizing that she was running out of money. ‘The first sentence of the article was that on the year anniversary of my spine surgery, I found that I was going broke. And then second sentence was, “Well, not broke broke,”’ London explains. ‘But people really took issue with it because, you know, a few months later my apartment was on “This House” or something. People were like, what the hell? Oh, and you’re broke.’
London, who says she sees social media as a place to cultivate an atmosphere of extreme transparency after spending so many years being expected to ‘play a part’ on television, nevertheless doesn’t regret the move to open up. ‘For me, talking about it made it less scary to go through and, at least for me, is a feeling of really not being ashamed,’ she says. ‘Because when you can shine a light on something that you fear makes you seem weak or imperfect or you know, kind of irresponsible, it does lessen the severity of it, the more you can talk about it.’
The existence of mass audiences with ambiguous identities — and agendas — is what’s really behind this uncanny valley, to borrow a popular term, where what’s real can be fake and vice versa. ‘The kinds of audiences that we all have, and the relationships with them are really new, and really fascinating, and exciting, and these examples are people that are at the cutting edge of human psychology,’ Jeff Hancock says. ‘It wasn’t possible to have an audience for a self-presentation of say, ten thousand people that then also could talk to you.’
Kelly Larkin, the blogger who had opened up about depression and infertility, had similar thoughts about the role of a mass audience in steering her to choose what to disclose and what not to disclose. ‘I actually think I would be less open about difficult topics if I weren’t a blogger,’ she explained. ‘With blogging, there’s a bit of mystery behind who my audience is. Yes, there are probably some people from different chapters of my life who have stumbled upon my site, and sure, it’s a little weird knowing that some of my acquaintances at the gym, for example, might know my innermost thoughts and feelings. But the vast majority of my readers are people I’ve never met before, and there’s a strange comfort and admittedly false sense of anonymity and privacy in that.’
But today, that audience can also be active — pushing along deceptions and falsehoods of its own. Or, as Stacy London related, members of that audience can make their own judgments as to what constitutes sufficient truth and transparency. Simultaneously, we’re all in possession of devices that give us both unparalleled access to the truth and the unprecedented means to disseminate or get absorbed in falsehoods. While it’s a far deeper and more nuanced issue than what influential Instagrammers choose to disclose or hide from their readers, the experiences of the likes of Kelly Larkin and Stacy London are indicative of what it’s like to exist in that world both personally and professionally. What are the effects on the rest of us as our lives?
The story, it’s clear, is still unfolding. And thanks to the ambiguity of the internet, each one of us will get a different version of that story.