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This month’s Frame: Authenticity that lasts, how heterotopias can help us build better digital environments
A framework that moves beyond building for a one-size-fits all notion of authenticity, to show how platforms can provide the tools for users to create and maintain their own authentic environments.
People desire authenticity. They want to eat authentic food, visit authentic places—and be their authentic selves. The online world is no different. A lack of authenticity is cited as a major driver in the problems facing traditional social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
However, “authenticity” is a slippery concept.
Firstly, authenticity lies within the eye of the beholder. What one person may view as authentic might seem fake to someone else. Secondly, authenticity is not fixed—it changes according to shifting tastes in society. Lastly, it’s hard to be authentic at scale. Think about the age-old story of the famous band that rises to popularity by rebelling against conventions, only to find mainstream success and be accused of selling out.
This means that people often keep searching for ways to be authentic, and we see this in the behaviour of social media users. Users are experimenting with a host of new platforms that promise authentic interactions. However, it is likely that the cycle will continue—users will head to new platforms in search of authenticity, and will leave once the place gets too crowded and mainstream.
Therefore the question is: how can we build authenticity that lasts?
To answer this, we can use elements of Michel Foucault’s work on heterotopias. This provides a blueprint for making “counter-sites”—spaces outside of the mainstream where people can be authentic.
In his essay "Des Espaces Autres”, Michel Foucault introduces the concept of heterotopias. Heterotopias are places people go in order to have experiences that run counter to the normal flows of life. These counter-sites are where people can be “true to themselves” rather than conforming to wider society.
Take Disneyland. This space enchants when it brings you from the outside, ushering you into a world of talking animals and cartoon aesthetics. If you were always there, Disneyland would become the norm and lose its magical qualities. For many children (and “Disney adults”) this counter-site is where they can experience authentic, magical interactions and be their true selves.
Foucault lays out a process by which heterotopias remain outside of the mainstream, retaining their magic as counter-sites. This process involves:
Codes of conduct
Being in the know
Layers of access
To avoid becoming overrun by people who don’t share the same values, these spaces use entry rituals to act as a filter.
Entry rituals can be used to transform the user into someone who can participate in the right way. Take BeReal—it only allows you to enter by posting a picture at a specific point in the day. If you miss posting at that time, the app informs other users that you didn’t do this…you weren’t “real”. The process requires the user to forfeit performativity to participate in the platform's goal of promoting authentic presentation and connection.
Entry rituals ensure that only those who should be, are allowed in. The spirit of the community—its authenticity—is kept intact.
Codes of Conduct
Counter-sites have their own etiquette. It is not enough to perform a one-off entry ritual. Once inside the space, you can be excluded if you don't know how to act.
Take the example of subreddits. Immediately upon entering the space you are provided with a set of rules to abide by, clearly visible in the sidebar. If you do not follow the guidelines, group moderators will redirect you to other subreddits—or remove you completely.
Codes of conduct guide actions within the space. A crucial part of how the community functions.
Being in the know
Counter-sites have their own language and vibe. Even if you are in the counter-site, if you don’t get it you remain outside of it.
Meme humour is a case in point. Memes often create a system of fast moving "in-jokes" that create insiders but keep others excluded. Similarly, users are creating varying levels of mystique online by excluding those who don’t know where to look. For example, younger users are downloading software and using workarounds to hide their highlight stories with black covers and no text.
Only those in the know or intent enough on finding out about a counter-site’s hidden meanings have true access.
Layers of access
Counter-sites are “deep”, containing spaces within spaces.
Take the example of a neighbour’s house. You may be invited inside, but as you walk through it you realise there are some rooms that are “off limits”. You are simultaneously within the space but excluded from certain parts of it.
Users and communities are crafting digital environments in similar ways. Beyond just Finstas, younger users are creating large numbers of profiles across and within apps for different circles of friends and interest groups.
While they are also manipulating tools in ways that weren’t intended to layer their profile’s privacy. For example, some younger users are archiving posts, and then unarchiving them so they only appear on their profile and not their feed. Only users who go on the person’s profile will see their pictures. This means only the people who are invested enough to habitually check their profiles, get to experience their life updates.
Users are finding joy in the different expressions of themselves they can display across and within their profiles.
This isn’t about being authentic in purely private spaces. It is about navigating wide ranging audiences and toying with who gets to see what.
Applying the framework
Foucault’s descriptions of heterotopias invites us to reconsider our relationship with authenticity. Without adequate barriers, counter-sites can become just another part of the mainstream.
Instead, platforms should provide users with the ability to build and maintain counter-sites. They should allow them to choose their own version of authenticity.
Counter-sites need more than just a private space. They need to filter their audiences through rituals of entry. Create a vibe that works by setting codes of conduct and excluding those who don’t fit the bill. And provide deeper levels of access through the creation of layered private spaces. By employing these techniques counter sites can preserve what makes them special—their authenticity.
Frames is a monthly newsletter that sheds light on the most important issues concerning business and technology.
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