The Future of Authenticity


Authenticity. What does this term mean to you? Honest, real, truthful, or perhaps being your genuine self? That is what comes to my mind when thinking about authenticity and I have always tried to stay true to that ideal. After all, people do not necessarily appreciate it when you deceive them, when you lie, or seem fake online and off. Authenticity is a value, it’s an adjective, and a verb but I think the future of authenticity is in trouble and it’s having dramatic effects throughout society. I want to be honest and say that this is NOT going to be a blog post about the dystopian future although it may seem like one, so I hope you will read on to the end. However, I need to be authentic about the challenges and opportunities of authenticity in our digitally mediated world. I am concerned. Actually, I’m pretty angry about where the Internet and social media have ended up since 2009 when I first joined Twitter. Social Media was emerging as this wonderfully creative and connecting space that was meant to disrupt the status quo. Naturally, as a social worker this appealed to me and as an academic it interested me even more. I decided to go all in on social media from an organizational perspective and dedicated my dissertation to studying how nonprofit human service organizations were using social media at that time.

            Authenticity in the digital social media space may not have been the biggest topic for me at that time, but it was important enough that I later wrote an article about organizational identity in the social media environment, and featured authenticity as a key component of a conceptual framework for understanding identity development and maintenance in social media spaces. I had been heavily influenced by my social work values of empathy, active listening, and genuine engagement that I saw the need for these same skills online. I was also influenced by the digital ethnographer Dr. Michael Wesch, and his anthropological introduction to YouTube and a subsequent article he authored about context collapse. If you have time, this video is actually really worth it.

  I also started to think more broadly about how people developed specific skills and knowledge from their participation in online spaces. I stumbled across the work of Henry Jenkins, Participatory Culture and New Media Literacies. I began reading more about Marshal McLuhan and other media and communications scholars while mixing it with education and pedagogical ideas from Paulo Freire to the Connected Learning Framework of Mimi Ito, Sonia Livingstone, and others. I even created a new course at the University of Nebraska at Kearney that focused on social media in the voluntary sector and civic engagement. I wrote about New Media Literacies in social work education and how I see this framework being beneficial to increase professional social work competencies related to digital technology. I held numerous Live Twitter chats with students, social work educators, and professionals from around the world. In short, I believed that social media would radically transform the profession and society. Now in 2021 as we look out across the ether of social media, we know one thing is undeniable. Social media has transformed society! Still, the question remains, has it been good or bad?

            I want to pause here and also remind you that I am generally an optimistic person and hopeful about the future, but this is the dystopian part of the blog post so just a fair warning. I am frustrated and angry with how social media has been co-opted by powerful interests to continue perpetuating inequality and causing real life harm. Most of you likely hear or see the misinformation and conspiracy theories that have proliferated across social media platforms like Facebook and YouTube. While these companies have made strides to mitigate the problem it’s hard for the general public to trust them because of past abuses such as data breaches, deals to share user information, or biased algorithms that do harm to marginalized communities. Even when it isn’t algorithms people often spread misinformation at alarming rates, which would suggest that we need digital and new media literacies to combat all of these problems. Then danah boyd told us in 2018 that digital literacies have been weaponized and Zeynep Tufecki talked about the coming dystopia built just to make us click on ads. Researchers warn about the negative mental health effects of social media and screens, but apparently no one listens because they are too busy being duped by Deepfakes or making their own with apps like Reface. Ghost kitchens are delivering chicken wings that some think are coming from this great new restaurant when in reality they may actually just be sourced from your local mom and pop shop around the corner. I mean really, even restaurants are fake now?!? Is anyone or anything authentic anymore? It’s all getting to be a lot to take in and could turn even the most hopeful amongst us into a pessimist who only sees the inevitable dystopia that is coming in the future. It sort of makes me want to scream. Okay. Deep breath. Here comes the hopeful part 😉

            One thing I have learned from futures and foresight practice is to be fully cognizant that the future hasn’t been written yet. Just like the ending scene in Back to the Future III, when Dr. Brown tells Jennifer and Marty that their future is whatever they make it, so make it a good one. I believe that we have an amazing opportunity to use digital technologies and social media for positive social good. I still believe digital and new media literacies are foundational to restoring civil society online as well as in real life. I’m not trying to simply gloss over the challenges I just presented above. Instead, I think we need to continue to be critical of the tools we collectively shape as a society and how those tools will in turn shape us (thank you McLuhan). However, I do think we need to step back and more fully consider the concept of Authenticity in order to reimagine these tools and spaces. Being genuine, true, or honest is a key value that most people esteem as a fundamental core tenet of society. Authenticity precipitates empathy and empathy requires authenticity. In Social Work we understand and value starting where the client is and genuinely engaging them in a partnership that should ultimately help them feel empowered to overcome any challenges they may be experiencing. Social work will be fundamental in the future if a crisis of authenticity continues to unfold.

            I think people, communities, organizations, and governments need to re-commit to authenticity and trust building. Imagine if Ghost Kitchens actually just partnered with those restaurants to provide better food and services that meet the contemporary expectations of today. Yes, misinformation will undoubtedly continue to be a problem but imagine how the technology that creates deepfakes will also be used to uncover them. Imagine digital and new media literacies being more deeply infused in our education to help people recognize disinformation and use critical thinking to uncover factual information and discredit bad actors. I also believe that humor will help people reconnect and learn about the challenges ahead and imagine creative solutions. It’s important that we break out of our silos and shake off the ill of confirmation bias or as I often call it the Lisa Loeb effect. Remember what Lisa said in the song Stay:

“And you say
I only hear what I want to
I don’t listen hard
I don’t pay attention
To the distance
That you’re running or to
Anyone anywhere

I don’t understand if you really care
I’m only hearing negative, no no no, bad

So I, I turned the radio on,
I turned the radio up”

Link to the song:

I should acknowledge that you have to get through an advertisement to actually hear the song if you decide to click that link. I hope you can see how often people don’t listen, don’t pay attention, and only hear the negative. Just imagine digital and media literacies being used in connection with social media to increase authenticity, build trust, and bring society back together instead of tearing it apart. It’s happening despite the research that suggests social media is bad for your health, which is actually really mixed in part because of a bunch of flawed data. I know not everyone has the time to follow technology trends and often it’s the extreme points or outlandish news bits that rise to the top of the noise, but change is happening to ensure that big tech is being held accountable as can be seen with what’s going on in the U.K. and Age Appropriate Design Code. Truth is people are still connecting online via groups and other communities where strong ties and deep connections provide support and belonging. Organizations are providing digital spaces for LGBTQ+ Youth to connect and seek resources that they might not otherwise have access to in their rural communities.

            It’s not going to be an easy task to shape the future in a way that promotes social and economic justice, ends racism, and tackles climate change, but I think authenticity will be foundational to the future. Digital literacies is a fairly broad term and we have seen a variety of literacies being discussed. If I could borrow a term from Dr. Laura Nissen, I would suggest that Next Media Literacies need to be built around authenticity and empathy. Social workers can be instrumental in this push to create inclusive spaces and increase connections online and off. I look at exit counselors who are building bridges of hope when the divide seems too great and pulling people out of the webs of conspiracy by finding common ground and establishing trust. Next Media Literacies will acknowledge the various tools and strategies for critical thinking, judgement, acknowledgement of cultural norms etcetera, but more importantly they will position authenticity and trust at the center to effect positive change.

In closing, I am hopeful about the future as I find hope in my colleagues at the Social Work Health Futures Lab because of their efforts to engage around these issues and others, and to shape our collective future for the good. I find hope in social work students who see so many challenges ahead and yet continue to want to change the world. The future of authenticity is ultimately what we make it. My hope is that we will begin with the end in mind and work towards a future that values connection, collaboration, and authenticity for the benefit of all.

Written by Jimmy Young

Written by Jimmy Young