POST REALITY IN THE INSTAGRAM AGE

What’s real? What’s fake? Or are those questions irrelevant?

In June, Gabriel Grossman proposed to his girlfriend Marissa Fuchs. If you haven’t heard of them, don’t worry, they’re not famous, at least in traditional terms. Grossman works in finance in New York and Fuchs is an Instagram blogger who also worked at Gwyneth Paltrow’s health and wellness website Goop. Despite their obscurity, Mr. Grossman flooded Instagram with videos of their extravagant three-day, scavenger hunt-like marriage proposal which included lavish gifts and trips to the Hamptons, Miami, and, finally, Paris. It was there, outside a chateau, that he got down on one knee and offered up a ring before the big reveal: both their families were in attendance and the actual wedding ceremony, was to take place right away – all while thousands of viewers watched on social media, of course. Throughout the elaborate affair, Fuchs was in a state of awestruck wonder, alternately shocked, confused, or enthralled, and often crying tears of joy.

It was also, quite possibly, all fake.

Marissa Fuchs

As these events unfolded, a juicier drama was brewing behind the scenes. A detailed marketing deck was discovered, a detailed pitch designed to be presented to brands offering sponsorship of their elaborate proposal in exchange for free services or products. It included biographies, data about Fuchs’ social media metrics, and a proposed timeline which mirrored very closely the events of the “surprise” proposal as it unfolded in real time.

Was the elated bride-to-be in on the plan, and feigning her reactions to appease advertisers? (Fuchs claims she had no prior knowledge of the proposal.) Did the lure of a wedding paid for by corporate sponsors drive this couple to possibly commoditize their nuptials? Was it the self-aggrandizing belief that their lives were envy-inducing enough to require an entrance fee, like the circus? Or was it plain old capitalism: if you can charge money for something – even if that something is the intimate details of your life, even if they happen to be lies – then, well, why wouldn’t you?

This proposal is an example of a bigger trend that has permeated the digital era. We live in an age where social media has warped the cultural landscape and upended notions of what’s real, what’s fake, and whether or not the distinction between the two even matters. When you look at your phone, it’s easy to forget that you’re merely gazing at pixels on a screen, a virtual reality made of light. However, the images themselves are often just as virtual, staged, photoshopped, and edited to create a patina of glamor and elicit envy, while underneath, it’s all a sham. From Fake News to the skin-smoothing Facetune app, we live in a post-truth society, where lies big and small are an accepted part of modern life, and Instagram is its most potent driving force.

As the Internet comes of age, the relationship between reality and social media is going through a reckoning. A few years back the Federal Trade Commission in the United States sent out an official note to social media influencers that any paid promotions from their accounts had to be clearly labeled as advertisements. It served as a reminder that your favorite celebrity’s new bag or dress may have been a gift and that maybe – just maybe! – the Kardashians or Jenners aren’t posting about diet pills because they love them, but because they were contractually obligated to. Shocking, I know.

Meanwhile, Instagram has spawned a whole ecosystem of false realities, and a generation that has an increasingly ambivalent connection to the truth. Take the fact that, while some influencers fail to disclose their paid posts, other up-and- comers actually fake brand endorsements – labeling certain posts as an #ad when, in fact, nobody paid them to promote a product – in hopes of appearing more valuable to advertisers and attracting real endorsements. Others, in turn, have purchased followers or employ the services of click farms, which provide likes and comments. While these may seem like desperate, or even pity-inducing forms of deception, there are real, financial consequences at stake: Business of Fashion recently reported that lies like these will cost advertisers more than $1 billion this year – a staggering amount. A cottage industry has grown around these sorts of frauds, including the company Fake a Vacation which has met the market demand for homebound sad sacks that want to look like they’re well-traveled, editing their pictures to look like glamorous vacations, even if their biggest trip of late has been from the couch to the fridge.

Even the filters – which are literally built into apps like Instagram and Snapchat – promote users to smooth away flaws and create a sun-dappled world which may or may not be true, further pushing the idea that our lives can all appear better, more optimized, thanks to technology, even if it comes at the expense of the truth. By now, even the most casual user knows that, to a certain extent, what we see on social media exists in a murky space between authenticity and forgery. Still, we’ve accepted those terms and keep scrolling.

Of course, to say that this is endemic of the Internet Age would be short-sighted. Fashion magazines and advertisers have long created glamorous, albeit fictional, images to sell products to the masses. Projecting a false version of oneself is as old as time itself. The big evolution is that social media has given each individual a soap box from which to broadcast their idealized self- image. From famous actors to nobodies, everyone is expected to share a piece of themselves online. It’s up to each individual to decide how much truth to reveal, and how much to edit.

Looked at cynically, Instagram is an app of untruths, where each post is sponsored and each like is purchased. But an interesting new trend is emerging: according to The Atlantic, the dreamy, gauzy aesthetic of yore is faltering in lieu of something more — you guessed it! — authentic. Think quirkiness, silly faces, bad lighting and a stark, no-filter look to replace the Millennial pink-washed, perfectly curated feed you’ve grown accustomed to. Could reality, warts and all, be the future? Only time will tell.

Max Berlinger is a New York-based writer, editor, and Real Housewives authority.

END OF STORY