We are currently facing a cultural crisis of authenticity. Since the early 2000s, we have seen the concept “authenticity” slowly move from margins to mainstream (Reynolds, 2011), encapsulated by feverish celebrity gossip surrounding breakout stars like Lana Del Rey, personified through the rise of the urban hipster as folk devil (those self-professed taste arbiters of cool who ride “fixies” through the urban landscape, collect obscure records, and wear vintage clothes), and exemplified in Web 2.0 and the rise of social media (especially curatorial media like LastFM and more recently, Pintrest), where we are all now encouraged to share, like, and make public pronouncements of our personal tastes. In the contemporary zeitgeist, it seems that we are all “grasping for authenticity” in an attempt to make our lives seem more important, substantial, and relevant (Jurgenson, 2011).
In this environment, identity is constructed both on and offline, but our online identities are increasingly coming to define our public identities. As such, the “online commons” (Lih, 2009) becomes an important space of identity construction and conflict.
Given this crisis of authenticity, and the preponderance of social media for contemporary identity construction, it is no surprise that the digital commons, and especially various forms of social media, become spaces of conflict. On Facebook, Twitter, or Tumblr, conflicts of taste become commonplace, as one person’s proud statement becomes another’s laughing joke, fodder for ridicule and sarcasm. For example, a tweet or status professing my appreciation for the new Nickelback album ["Nickelback's new album roolzs!"] would no doubt invite commentary like, “Nickelback is still a band?” or “Dude. You’re joking right?”.
Celebrity deaths often serve as a focal point for such conflicts of taste, as individuals make identity claims by tweeting, sending a status update, or creating memorial memes to share with their digital social networks, as the most recent case of Whitney Houston illustrates. However, celebrity deaths also invite counterclaims by those who either feel their identities threatened by the publicity their once-beloved-idols receive, or who feel that such public grief is unwarranted. Most internet memes that mock such public pronouncements of grief are latent with such cynicism, seeing consumers as passive and simple-minded, naively concerned with the death of their idols while more newsworthy crises and events occur elsewhere.
Internet memes, as small, packaged signifiers pregnant with shared cultural meaning, become weapons of symbolic violence in conflicts of taste that occur in social media. By symbolic violence, I amend Pierre Bourdieu’s (1989) concept slightly, in order to account for individual actions aimed at social domination or symbolic/discursive control in the curation of taste. Bourdieu originally defined used the term to refer to the process by which dominant groups secure ideological hegemony by naturalizing their positions and getting minorities to internalize these hierarchies as legitimate, a premiere example of Bourdieu’s other concept of symbolic “world-making” (Bourdieu, 1989). In the case of conflicts of taste in the digital commons, however, symbolic violence most often takes the form of individual assaults on taste cultures, trends, and fads.
Internet memes become weapons for making identity claims online. Individuals lob them at one another through the digital commons, making claims and counterclaims of authenticity, seeking to prove “true” allegiance to an act, band, celebrity, or subculture through mockery, wit, and sarcasm.
In the digital realm, identity is partially constructed by such texts, whether in the form of a meme or more directly as a status or tweet. These public pronouncements act as expressions of taste. As we know from Bourdieu, expressions of taste are latent with underlying class tensions (Bourdieu, 1984). In the contemporary moment, such conflict is epitomized by the Occupy Wall Street protests, whose rallying cry “We are the 99%!” reflects a moment in history when struggles of agency/structure are increasingly perceived as a product of corporate malfeasance.
Susannah Young observes how the current “authenticity crisis” emerges alongside fields of cultural production like advertising and public relations. She illustrates how such logic enters our self-concepts.
Ultimately, the whole authenticity issue taps into our own social anxieties over being called out on our lack of knowledge. We live at a time when almost everyone has access to enough information and cultural trends (whether within their own social networking microcosm or on a larger plane) to make ourselves dilettantes and present ourselves as experts. Close proximity to both information and experts means we should be harder to fool – but also that we’re one withering “@you” away from being “Del Rey”’d ourselves when we do get fooled. It’s a weird, delicate situation, having to prop up our own advertisements for ourselves. Did we listen enough to “I’m Every Woman” to be justifiably, authentically sad? Does it matter?
So the crisis of authenticity becomes an integral part of the self-concept, a contemporary identity tension we must all reconcile. The deployment of internet memes, often witty but sometimes hurtful, is but one way individuals discursively construct their identities online.