Looking at phone screen over person's shoulder.

Social Media and The Authenticity Drought

When I agreed to watch a film last Friday night, I did not realise I was subjecting myself to such a prolonged period of discomfort. For the 139-minute duration of The Talented Mr. Ripley, I felt tense, on edge, and subsequently went to bed deeply disturbed about the human psyche. The film is a psychological drama based on the 1955 book by Patricia Highsmith. The film stars Matt Damon, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow and Cate Blanchett in the picture of glowing and chiselled youth (Jude Law is seriously not one to miss). Mr Ripley (Matt Damon) on the other hand, is not so likable as he proves to be a social climbing conman, perhaps the greatest in literary history. Ripley is a character who lacks identity and is obsessed with the idea of becoming someone important – this someone is Jude Law’s wealthy and affluent character Dickie Greenleaf Jr. It is a tale that reveals so much about human nature and reflects our society’s long-standing obsession with fame, wealth, and material success. The most salient theme the film left me with was the experience of loneliness as well as the human tendency to use personality masks. I found myself drawing parallels between Highsmith’s Mr. Ripley and the personalities we see online today via people’s Instagram profiles. I wonder, could Highsmith’s 1955 classic be an allegory for the world we inhabit today, whereby technology has enabled us to develop these mask-wearing traits? The scariest thing of all is that we often celebrate those who do it the best.

Personality ‘masking’ is symptomatic of the human desire to belong

Today, the Western world is described by social psychologists and anthropologists as being a ‘post-materialist’ landscape, which means it focuses on selfhood rather than purely survival. Selfhood is the quality of individuality, which is the state of having an individual identity. However, in this moment of intense self-expression, the quality of authenticity is an increasingly difficult phenomenon to locate. Social media platforms, online personalities, advertising campaigns and mass media constantly inform the public what and how we should best think, eat, dress, read, watch, and spend our time and energy. Constant exposure to these instructions leads people to consciously or subconsciously engage in what psychologists call ‘masking’ to keep afloat socially, emotionally, and economically. Masking is a process whereby humans alter or ‘mask’ their true personality to meet conventional norms and expectations. People can easily become dependent and lost in the camouflage they use, ultimately leading to low levels of self-worth, identity confusion and mental health issues.


We all try to control how we are perceived by others

A common way psychological masking manifests in the layperson is by altering the way you express yourself. You shift your speech, body language, tone, or facial expressions to control the way you are perceived by others. A second common way is actively hiding your authentic self, by actively repressing behaviours, desires and urges that come naturally to you and engaging with those that contradict how you feel. This could be laughing at something you don’t find funny, wearing an outfit you don’t feel comfortable in or asserting you like something that you don’t. At its core, masking can reflect low self-esteem and self-worth, poor body image, perfectionist thinking, and a desire for social acceptance. Masking is symptomatic of the human desire to belong; however, experts are warning that the online versions of personality masking we see today in social media personalities have a far more malicious, Ripley-esque agenda.


Scrolling social media today reflects a cultural moment motivated by fame and transfixed by being noticed

In the film, Mr. Ripley possesses a very specific ambition to be a somebody, an important somebody, and does not care if he must steal or fake it to get there. From this unfolds a twisted tale of identity disturbance and masking that is consistent with descriptors of narcissism and antisocial personality disorder. However, this pathological con-artistry we see in the film is not a far cry from the social media landscape of today where contrived images and videos try to pass as reality.

Scrolling an Instagram or TikTok feed today reflects a cultural moment motivated by fame and transfixed by being noticed. In a 2016 UK survey, 56% of the 1000 adolescents identified ‘celebrity’ as their career ideal (Eyal, 2017). Today, social media and the social media influencer have enabled individuals to realise this desire for fame. Take 21-year-old Emma Chamberlain, whose Wikipedia page lists her career title as ‘Online Personality’ and ‘Professional Influencer’. Like all influencers, Chamberlain is an online personality equipped with persuasive social skills whose very professional existence is a function of the media. However, what the regular social media user and follower probably does not see is that the fame and success these online personalities boast is due to cunning masking strategies. An eye-opening example of this is shown in Paris Hilton’s (arguably the first ‘influencer’) tell-all 2020 documentary This Is Paris. Paris openly shows how she deliberately created the public persona she has lived for decades, often at odds with her true personality, in order to become as famous and successful as she has. It also is a glaring insight into the not-so-rosy reality of what it can be like to live life in this way.


Personality masking is now a rewarded and celebrated profession

In Ester Yi’s 2023 novel titled Y/N, she describes celebrity and influencer personalities as ‘unafraid to leave a mark on other’s lives, possessing as they do, an unshakable faith in their own genius’. The unapologetic behaviour of today’s Social Media Influencer manifests in the way they establish relational qualities like trust, intimacy, and loyalty with social media users. Brands have come to recognise the value of this relational trust as it reduces the brand’s need to verify information, making the knowledge transfer to their target audiences seamless and less costly for the brand. Specifically, brands are opting to stitch their message into influencer personalities, creating ‘influencer marketing’. This industry grew from $1.7 billion in 2016 to $9.7 billion in 2020, a figure that doubled after 2022. In this way, personality masking is now a rewarded and celebrated profession. However, expert researchers and scholars in technology and psychology warn of the risk and negligence of this unregulated arena.


We don’t know the damage as we are not yet on the other side of this cultural moment

Action is now being taken by governments as they work with experts to figure out how best to regulate these platforms. But how do you regulate a public consciousness that is preoccupied with fame and success? It was in 1893 when William James wrote humans are ‘not just gregarious animals, liking to be in sight of our fellows, but we have an innate propensity to get ourselves noticed, and noticed favourably, by our kind’. Though, at what point does this desire to be noticed, to achieve fame, become pathological? What does a world of Ripley-esque behaviour look like? We don’t know, we are not yet on the other side of this cultural moment. We cannot see what the damage is of all the young Ripleys obsessively recording and selling the carefully curated brand that is their day-to-day life. Empirical research on personality and identity masking reveals that consistent camouflaging of a person’s true personality has detrimental effects on their mental health. While masking may lead one to blue-tick fame and material luxury, one must ask: at what cost? While we are yet to see what this all gives way to, perhaps Mr. Ripley is a prophetic character whereby he ends up just as he started: living a life starved of meaning and genuine human connection.

If you’re curious about the potential impact of social media on body image, read on here. You can also read more about switching off from technology more broadly here. Or if you struggle with personality masking and want to connect with the authentic you a bit more, our team of psychologists can help.