better than “authenticity”

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When I began blogging back in the Dark Ages (my first blog post was over 15 years ago, making Chookooloonks damn near a fossil in internet age), there was no such thing as “influencers,” or “monetization,” or even “Kardashian” for that matter (unless you were talking about OJ Simpson’s trial). Those of us who have been online that long began our “weblogs” because we were enthralled by this new democratization of the internet: the web had been solely the purview of corporations, and the idea that individuals could write and express and publish their thoughts — almost like Erma Bombeck! Or Dave Barry! — was exciting and empowering. Back then, I don’t think any of us thought that our blogs would ever make us any money; the most we ever dreamed of was getting a book published, or becoming a newspaper columnist.

You know, like Erma Bombeck. Or Dave Barry.

And what we wrote was pretty true to who we were — sure, we might have been more sarcastic online that in real life, or even more sweet-natured — but we were honest. You could pretty much assume that if you met us in real life, you wouldn’t find us espousing thoughts or ideologies that were any different from what we’d written online. And for the most part, back in those early days, we didn’t lie.

Eventually corporations and businesses realized that those of us who were using our blogs to share our thoughts were garnering a lot of attention, and they started hiring bloggers to write about their products — the first “influencers.” As blogging became big business, conferences popped up, helping these new online entrepreneurs learn about various aspects of running their businesses — from how to write a solid pitch, to how to create editorial calendars, to how to determine their worth. Honestly, it was incredibly exciting: women who didn’t have careers before their blogs were suddenly making big money; women who did have careers were suddenly discovering, through their blogs, that there were entire new opportunities that were available to them that might even be more fulfilling than their current jobs. (I certainly fell in the latter camp). Of course, blogging helped some bloggers become New York Times Bestselling authors, but blogging also helped folks become activists. Multimillionaire business owners. Blogging was revolutionary.

But as all of this growth was happening, bloggers (and later, YouTubers, Instagrammers, Facebookers, and all the other social media influencers) began creating carefully curated feeds, with beautiful, perfect images — ostensibly to help attract more business. Instead of sharing how difficult parenting was (as many early bloggers did), parents began sharing images of perfect children, perfectly appointed homes, bright, shiny faces. Corporations, in an effort to seem more relatable, would create content that appeared to be personal narrative from bloggers who essentially became spokespeople, causing the people who had been reading their words to feel like suddenly the “friend” they had been following online had sold out. And as an ironic result, “how to be authentic” became a huge topic of conversation at conferences — and in fact, still is, if my experience at last week’s ALT Summit is any indication.

Do you see the tension? People want “authenticity” online, but folks who are trying to make money online find themselves having to curate what they share. How authentic can you be, if you’re being paid by a corporation to sell their products? And if blogging is simply one aspect of your own small business, how authentic can you be online, without risking the alienation of potential clients? Are we really supposed to believe that the travel vlogger never experiences jet lag? The food blogger never ruins the soufflé? The design Instagrammer never has a messy home, and the activist on Facebook never experiences moments of doubt?

For this reason, I think the word “authenticity,” in this reality-show world, has come to lose some of its meaning — it seems to me that when it comes to online, “authenticity” has begun to mean “airbrushed reality.” So I’d like to propose a higher standard than “authenticity” when it comes to our work, especially as we portray our work and ourselves online:

go for integrity.

Integrity is bigger than authenticity, I think — it encompasses trustworthiness. It implies a moral code. It doesn’t have the bare-it-all-ness that “authenticity” often connotes; rather, it inspires an underlying current of adherence to a code of ethics. In some ways, I think integrity can be more difficult that authenticity — because it requires to you to be mindful of your best self. It allows for the curation of a beautiful online existence, but requires that you also be honest about its curation.

So whether you’re an influencer, or a small business owner, or a blogger or any other type of content creator, make the bold move to forget about authenticity: level up to integrity.

Integrity is choosing courage over comfort. It’s choosing what is right over what is fun, fast, or easy. It’s choosing to practice your values rather than simply professing them.
— Brené Brown