9 mins reading and 12 mins viewing
Recently I wrote about the themes of being visible and being on camera, both of which raise the important question of how to do so in an ‘authentic’ way. You’ll notice I used inverted commas around that word (and you’ll see me do it a lot), as the concept of ‘authenticity’ is very slippery and often employed in a misleading way that doesn’t match up with the complexity of contemporary digital media culture.
People who claim that someone in a video is being ‘authentic’ generally use the term as a placeholder that gestures to ideas of ‘reality’, ‘accuracy’, or ‘truthfulness’. However, I’d like to adopt a redefinition of the concept by Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson (2014, p. 75), whose work is informed by theorists who speak of authenticity as ‘manufactured’ and ‘calculated’ – as a form of ‘stage management’. Smith and Watson write:
If by authenticity one means the unmediated access to some ‘essence’ or ‘truth’ of a subject, virtual environments only make clearer the critique made by poststrucural theorists that all self-presentation is performative, that authenticity is an effect, not an essence.
I find myself using that passage often. ‘Authenticity’ is influenced by several key overlapping characteristics:
- Convention: the use and undermining of video-making conventions that are formed and re-formed by content creators themselves
- Perception: the process of reception and interaction undertaken by an audience is as important as the video-maker’s intent regarding what and how meanings are conveyed
- Fluidity: conventions of video-making and what is perceived as ‘authentic’ by audiences shift over time within and across the ever-changing media platforms and how they are used (and received).
These are some of the aspects of the notion of ‘authentic performance’ that I’ll unravel throughout this post.
Speaking to Camera
The act of looking directly into the camera lens has become so naturalised that it may seem strange to think of it as a convention, but it’s a very powerful one. Dylan Hornsby demonstrates why this is the case in the opening minute of his video below:
When I started making videos for YouTube, speaking to camera was something I knew I had to do right from the start. I never read from a script and would often spend a looooooong time getting things right! Even if I had ready access to the fancy tech that allows you to read from a small screen while looking at the camera, I would never used it. The likelihood of this being noticed through one’s tone or slight eye movements can be a detriment to connection, intimacy, and engagement.
Also worth noting here are the generic conventions Dylan employs to make his video familiar-but-different – and how audience interpretation influences this. The title sequence used might conjure some viewers’ memories of 1980s television dramas such as Press Gang (as it does for me), but the fact it’s done in a playful and parodic manner will likely mean that, even without this intertextual understanding, a much broader audience will still relate to the performance and find it an engaging and ‘authentic’ one.
Let’s look at another predominantly video-based persona to go deeper into this… and yes, it’s going to have to involve board games. #sorrynotsorry
A Discriminating Gamer
Cody Carlson is a PhD student in the United States currently researching World War II history, though is known to most people online as a board game reviewer with a regular video output spanning a number of years. I should correct something here though: Cody is not a discriminating gamer; he is The Discriminating Gamer. He has built a unique personal brand for his YouTube channel that adds something extra to his on-screen performances.
The grey beret is a staple of Cody’s video work, and while he doesn’t always wear his tweed jacket, his rhetorical style is fairly consistent. Playing off stereotypes of what it means to be ‘cultured’ and ‘sophisticated’, Cody frequently pokes fun at himself with ‘Dad jokes’ at the beginning and end of his videos. As such, his intros and outros at once conform to familiar structural conventions, but are also self-styled and original through his performative choices. Have a watch of the first 30 seconds and the last 45 seconds (from 10:45) of the video below to get a taste of what Cody does…
Conventions are powerful things: they can be conformed to, they can be tweaked in innovative ways, and they can be upended with particularly visceral power. One noteworthy example of the last of these possibilities occurred on Cody’s channel in 2017, when he posted a video that was very different to his usual 10-15 minute reviews, Top Ten Lists, or 1+ hour live streamed game sittings. In the following two-and-a-half minute video, Cody ponders the future of his channel after receiving some good news…
Fortunately for me, Cody’s many other fans, and I dare say Cody himself, he’s still making great board game reviews for his channel. Nonetheless, the above video opens up some interesting points about performance and ‘authenticity’.
In this video, Cody breaks with his ‘genre’, but not entirely. His trademark jacket and beret remain, along with his background of board games, as the usual fixture of his personal brand. Cody’s pattern of acknowledging his audience as ‘ladies and gentlemen’ in a specific tone starts this video just as it does so many others from his output, although there is no corny joke at the end. Further, the inclusion of visible emotion will likely have a greater affective resonance with his audience – particularly long-time fans. In fact, this video compelled me for the first time to leave a comment myself.
This is still a performance though. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying there is anything inauthentic about this performance. Due to Cody’s subversion of his own typical delivery and conventions, it is exceptionally authentic. But it’s still a performance that is-and-is-not Cody Carlson. Another example would be Cody’s more ‘personal’ contribution from his trip to Gettysburg, which was a less polished performance and gave some insight into some of his other passions – and his desire to share them.
I should also acknowledge that, perhaps without me realising it at the time, Cody’s inclusion of corny, self-deprecating humour no doubt influenced my own on-screen performances in video outros – although admittedly, Cody pulls it off better than me! 😀
So how I can I sum up this complicated intersection of authenticity and performance? Let me at least try to provide some advice…
I’m not going to say ‘just be yourself’ or ‘act natural’ as a lot of people suggest – and not only in relation to video-making. This sounds to me like cliched meaninglessness. Standing in front of a camera talking to no-one-but-someone is hardly a ‘natural’ thing to be doing. No matter how ‘amateur’ or ‘personal’ your video is, speaking to an audience from the screen is a performance (just like when you’re not on a screen). You’re wearing a mask or playing a character. So I can’t say ‘act natural’ because it’s exactly that – acting.
Let me linger on one more example of what I mean here. Watch this short video I made over the weekend for students where I incorporate multiple characters…
You’ll have noticed that when I speak to the invisible ‘assistant’, the tone of my voice changes. On the one hand, it would seem that given the scenario that plays out, the main character I play at the start and end of this video is farther away from the idea of ‘who I really am’; a more fictional representation. The interruption seems to show me shedding the ‘mask’ of the first character to bring out a ‘deeper truth’, and the change in my intonation to a seemingly ‘less performative’, deeper tone is actually closer to my natural speaking voice.
On the other hand, as I’m clearly speaking to no one through a non-existent earpiece, this is visibly and audibly a kind of meta-performance in itself. Does it even make sense to say there are two characters here? Does the video show me playing a character playing a character, or is it better framed as just one big artificial performance? Let’s not get too twisted up in this: the fact is I’m not in this video at all – and I am in this video, from start to finish.
What gives my performance ‘authenticity’ is nothing to do with how ‘accurately’ or ‘truthfully’ it captures me as a person (whatever that actually means). There are several elements that make it likely my performance will be perceived as ‘authentic’, such as the fact I’m visibly present on camera, dressed casually, engaging directly with viewers, and speaking in a friendly, personable manner that might (hopefully) add value to them.
Another factor that can affect perceived authenticity may well be the ‘immediacy’ of the video and its contents. If I tweeted a video with identical messages that I’d made last year, my sense is that it would lose some of its ‘credibility’ and ‘power’ just by nature of it not being made specifically for the audience at hand (i.e. current students). Social media collapses spatial and temporal distances, but not without limit. Likewise, perhaps my trick with the invisible earpiece would have less potency if students knew I’d already done it in a video made in 2018 – and hence was more of a ‘convention’ I drew on from memory than a spontaneous decision made for the first time…
The idea of ‘being yourself’ doesn’t make sense when you think about online or onscreen performances in this way. You can’t help but perform; the main distinction involved is how conscious of it you are. What I will say though is don’t force a character that you’re not comfortable with. There is a subtle difference here from ‘acting natural’, but there is a difference. It may well take a while to avoid being uncomfortable, or at least reduce the discomfort, but don’t make your job harder by overthinking your performance.
Try out some things. Get some feedback. See what works and what doesn’t.
Learn by doing.
That’s really about the best and only advice that I can give.
Smith, S and Watson, J 2014, ‘Virtually Me: A Toolbox about Online Self-Presentation’, in Poletti, A and Rak, J, Identity Technologies: Constructing the Self Online, The University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, pp. 70-95.