A post for the Youtube beauty community only – on vlogging, role models, and credibility.
Had I – fifteen years ago – complained about Sarah Jessica Parker not working as a journalist in real-life, nor being in a relationship with Chris North (aka. Mr. Big), I’d have been called a fool, and rightfully so. In 2015 however, it has become increasingly hard to discern the difference between fiction and reality.
As far as beauty videos, the initial (!) core business of beauty gurus are concerned, a growing number of fans seem to have noticed a certain incompatibility of sponsored partnerships and the unbiasedness of reviews; a transformation of what used to be impartial opinions of mere private persons into advertisement fiction led by commercial interests. The fact that British Youtubers have collectively agreed to flag any kind of sponsored videos seems to indicate that the industry is aware of the viewers’ awareness of this conflict of interest; and that they try to bring down passions (cf. the regular uproar on Blair Fowler’s channel) by means of full disclosure, i.e. by referring to sponsored videos as “ads” or “advertorials” in the title. Obviously, these declared sponsorships do not automatically make a video untruthful: But they advise the audience to take the video with a pinch of salt. A beauty guru mentioning a new make-up item MIGHT be not solely due to her love for this product, but also to her affiliation with the company. The times where bloggers, as Sali Hughes states in Pretty Honest (p. 318), were “free of the shackles of advertisers” and offered “more honest coverage” than glossies, are over in my opinion: Especially considering the industry itself is acknowledging and pointing out this development.
The same is true for photographic self-promotion. Debates about photographs being truthful representations of the outside world are as old as the medium itself; but a platform like Instragram has taken the question of authenticity to a whole new level by setting up a community that shares nothing but made-to-look-like picture-perfect snippets of not-quite-real real life, keeping the status of their pictures in suspense and neither acknowledging nor denying the mise-en-scène. Instragram produces unforeseen and incredibly influential fictions of perfection whose fictional character is only implicitly acknowledged, but never seriously questioned, either. Since Instagram followers are also at the same time Instagram content creators themselves and know about the means of retouching and mise-en-scène from first-hand experience, Instagram does not need disclaimers or policies of full disclosure: Every content consumer is also a content producer and therefore implicitly, maybe even unconsciously ascribes a touch of fiction and self-narration to what innocently pretends to be true-to-life representations.
I am fully aware of stating the obvious here, but I want to recapitulate what is water under the bridge by now in order to sketch out parallels between media channels and platforms that openly or implicitly acknowledge elements of narration and fiction in their content (like Youtube beauty reviews and Instragram), and daily vlogs, the last bastion of truthfulness, our beloved documentations of everyday nothingness! But, you might ask, why should any beauty guru want to lead her audience up the garden path as far as her private life is concerned? Well, I might not have the answer as to why they do it, but I (an we all) know for sure they do! Just think of one of Youtube’s biggest and brightest, who was forced to admit that she had not, as some of her vlogs suggested, written her novel all by herself. Why on earth would you unsolicitedly and actively present yourself as a writer in documentations of your everyday, private life, if in fact, you are not? Where is the disclaimer in the title of these vlogs that advises me to take these videos with a pinch of salt, if – quite the contrary – all daily vloggers do all day every day is demonstrate how truthful and authentic their vlogs are?
Recently, an unprecedented case of active misleading in vlogs has struck me even more. In case you missed out: Another British Youtuber actively fooled her audience for an incredible seven months into thinking she was still in a relationship with ther former husband, with whom she had actually broken up in August 2014, but who still appeared in her daily vlogs as if nothing at all had happened! You might invoke that there were personal reasons for this choice; that she wanted to protect her little daughter, who might eventually watch these videos. First of all, and on a side note only, I find this to be a rather shallow argument, because there is a difference between public mudslinging on Youtube (which nobody would expect nor require for authenticity’s sake) and active misleading of an audience, that will not save herself nor her daughter any pain. But more importantly, this case exemplarily illustrates a whole new aspect of Youtube-specific conflicts of interest: A conflict between daily vlogs as an ostentatiously candid and truthful medium that lives from authenticity, and the human beings behind them, with their personal as well as financial interests that seem to conflict with unaltered representations of everyday reality.
(Part II coming your way on Wednesday.)