A quick scroll through Chicago-based Kelly Larkin’s Instagram account or lifestyle blog, Kelly in the City, is enough to put anyone in a good mood. It’s a blend of bright patterns, fresh and clean interior spaces, and high-quality photos of Larkin, her husband, their toddler daughter, and Noodle, the dachshund. The Larkins are aspirational yet accessible, and Kelly Larkin herself, a former journalist and public school teacher, is funny and clever about life and parenting.
So when in 2016 Larkin opened up about how difficult it had been for her to get pregnant, and when in 2018 she wrote in-depth about her repeat struggles with depression, it could easily have seemed jarring to anyone who had been following her Instagram feed of pastel gingham prints and cheery home renovations. And it followed an emotional dilemma for Larkin herself.
‘I admittedly did feel a little dishonest,’ Larkin said in an interview. ‘Over the years, depression and infertility have played a major, often all-consuming roles in my life, and blogging about pretty shoes and other frivolous things during those times made me feel inauthentic and as though I was leading a double life.’ She said, ultimately, what pushed her to write about it was advice from a friend that perhaps if she was open about her struggles, she might provide solace and hope to others who were going through the same — even if she had no idea who those people are.
Larkin had found herself in a strange new place that digital media has brought upon us: the zone of uncertainty where you don’t quite know you-you might be talking to online, where the line between truth and deception is frequently obfuscated, and where we’re simultaneously pulled toward unprecedented ‘transparency’ and the desire to carefully craft our personas to the point of dishonesty. We all now inhabit a world where the idea of the ‘truth’ has completely changed, and as a population of internet users, we aren’t yet on a level where we can process it.
For one, this doesn’t just affect people like Larkin who can call themselves ‘influencers.’ When we fill out social media profiles or post updates, we are in effect creating our brands. And one study after another indicates that people have no problem admitting those personal brands don’t entirely reflect reality. In 2016 a UK marketing firm called Custard surveyed British internet users and found that fewer than a fifth of them said their social profiles were ‘a completely accurate reflection of me and who I am.’ (The biggest share of respondents said that their profiles were ‘pretty much my life but without the boring bits.’)
At the very least, we put a glossy sheen on things. Facetune, an app that lets mobile phone users smooth out wrinkles and snip out pesky bits of flab in photos, has been the most popular photo and video app on the iPhone for years (and rarely budges from the top 10 apps overall), according to analytics company AppAnnie. Slang terms for actions taken to look more attractive in photos, from ‘skinny arm’ to ‘duckface,’ have long since entered the popular lexicon.
Online dating, perhaps unsurprisingly, is a hotbed of small exaggerations, with a 2007 study from Stanford University finding that two-thirds of participants lied about their weight by at least five pounds and that men tend to add nine-tenths of an inch to their height. But one of the authors of the study, Jeff Hancock, has disagreed that the internet is turning us all into pathological liars. In a 2012 TED talk, he said that ‘despite our intuitions, mine included, a lot of online communication [and] technologically-mediated communication is more honest than face-to-face.’ LinkedIn resumes were more accurate than paper resumes. Dating site users lied, but only by a little bit. Study participants were able to assess a stranger’s personality based only on a Facebook profile, with surprising accuracy.
According to Hancock, this is because digital media leaves the ultimate paper trail. ‘Writing only emerged about 5,000 years ago. So what that means is that all the people before there was any writing, every word that they ever said, every utterance disappeared,’ he said in his TED talk. But that’s changed, he elaborated. ‘We’re entering this amazing period of flux in human evolution where we’ve evolved to speak in a way in which our words disappear, but we’re in an environment where we’re recording everything.’
Hancock theorizes that lying has now become harder, not easier. ‘Now, when you are about to say or do something, we can think, “Do I want this to be part of my legacy? Part of my record?”’ he posited. ‘Because in the digital age we live in now, in the networked age, we are all leaving a record.’
Hancock’s talk is now over a half dozen years old, and the years since have seen the emergence of everything from catfishing to deep fades to fake news. An MIT study has found that falsehoods spread faster than the truth. Research published in a Canadian journal in 2016 found that only 32 percent of people claim to be ‘always honest’ on social media (and how many of them are lying about that, anyway?) and that in turn, most of us are suspicious of how honest others are being. Along New York magazine feature by journalist Max Read at the tail end of 2018 asked, ‘How much of the internet is fake?’ and suggested that we are ‘living less a calculable falsehood, and more a particular quality of experience — the uncanny sense that what you encounter online is not ‘real’ but is also undeniably not “fake,” and indeed maybe both at once, or in succession, as you turn it over in your head.’
When asked about what’s changed since his talk, Hancock said that there’s a dissonance that arises from the fact that we use the same devices and mediums to connect with the people in our lives that we know intimately, as well as with entities whom we know may not be who they say they are. ‘I think there are at least two different worlds that coexist on our phone or the same sort of feeling of technology,’ Hancock said in an interview. ‘There are groups of people that I know in my real life, and I expect to have ongoing relationships with, and there are people that I have nothing to do with, and it’s straightforward to conflate those two right now because, in the same device, maybe within the same minute that I’m talking to [both of them].’