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Vulnerability Porn: The Latest Trend Sweeping Social Media

Sharing your worst moments has become a valuable source of likes – but is performative vulnerability causing more harm than good?

My Instagram feed is changing. No longer a utopia of photoshopped influencers and well-lit, aesthetic selfies, it seems the social network is undergoing an intervention. An activism renaissance is alive and well, with political discourse being shared alongside discussions of privilege and call out culture.

At the same time, the overwhelming pressure to share your best filtered, YOLO moments on social media is starting to wane, while displaying your latest unflattering angles, or a long treatise about the most traumatic moment in your life, is gaining steam.

This latest trend is called ‘vulnerability porn’, and it could be doing more harm than good.

Why do we connect with people best during their worst moments?

Also referred to as performative vulnerability, or “sadfishing”, these new behaviours seek the same social media validation, but in much more exposing ways.

While performative vulnerability and sadfishing imply that the poster’s problems are exaggerated for sympathy or attention, vulnerability porn is a term used to describe the viewer’s fascination with reading such content. Sharing personal traumas via essay-length captions, and unflattering photos attached to vague hashtag activism, are the hallmarks of vulnerability porn.

The problem is, we’ve all overshared at one time or another – so how do we know when it becomes harmful?

According to Jennifer Musselman, an organisational psychotherapist who recently chatted to I-D about the trend, “vulnerability porn on social media is linked to vulnerability addiction, in which one engages in the state of being exposed emotionally or psychologically for the reward validation or attention from others.”

“The engagement from that was so incredible that that was what inspired me to keep going.”

There has always been a strong link between social media and attention seeking – it’s widely expressed as the reason we hate it most. But during a global pandemic, it’s also social media that we turn to for connection as we become increasingly isolated from others, physically quarantined in our homes.

Meanwhile, influencers are being increasingly locked out of their standard modes of ‘influence’ due to COVID-19 restrictions – free travel, exclusive parties, and glittering runways. Instead, they’re turning to more personal ways to connect to their audience.

And their followers have been loving it.

Aussie influencer Lisa Desanctis has found that her most awkward moments are a source of excellent engagement. After many years of sharing the best of herself via warmly filtered, friendly images featuring product placement and perfect skin, Desanctis discovered that a new, more impromptu Instagram Stories function allowed her to share a different side. It turns out that a raw, honest look into her real life was the key to a deeper connection that she had been missing from her followers.

“[The introduction of] Stories really helped break down a lot of those walls,” she says, “not just for me, but for a lot of people – because they weren’t filtered, they were real, they didn’t have to be perfect because you knew that they were going to disappear […] the engagement from that was so incredible that that was what inspired me to keep going.”

The response encouraged her to start sharing images of her ‘real’ body – including all the angles no one usually wants to post to social media, let alone to 280,000 strangers.

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Me feeling cute versus me attempting to touch my toes. Both are fab I say 👋🏼

A post shared by Lisa | See Want Shop (@lisa_desanctis) on

“The first couple of times I did those kinds of posts it was terrifying – because you are worried about what people are going to say. But it’s from the incredible reaction that I got when I did that, that it then gave me confidence to do it more, and show even worse angles and more vulnerability.”

Her discovery wasn’t unique. Influencers worldwide have been increasingly sharing personal stories encompassing everything from deeper reflections on their own sexual assault trauma or body dysmorphia, to lighter reflections on body image, mental health, and embarrassing moments.

It’s unsurprising that it’s become a boon for influencers seeking followers and likes in an increasingly difficult social media environment; one that is restricted by a mysterious algorithm and plagued by pushes towards advertising spend.

However, consumers are benefiting from this new social media trend too – in particular some of the most vulnerable people online, young people.

“It then gave me confidence to do it more, and show even worse angles and more vulnerability.”

Dr Hayley Watson, a Clinical Psychologist and the CEO of youth mental health organisation Open Parachute, has been investigating the intersection between youth culture and social media while developing the organisation’s mental health programs. She believes the appeal of this trend isn’t in the oversharing, but rather, the suggestion of authenticity.

“What really grabs people, what really makes people want to listen, is when someone is being authentic,” she explains. “What makes someone cool and approachable is someone being real. […] You want to move towards that because it feels attainable. It feels like it resonates with you.”

That sense of realism and attainment has been sorely lacking within the shiny halls of Instagram. As we’re increasingly drawn away from feeds filled with the lavish lives of young people flaunting their wealth and connections, their images are being replaced with depictions of something altogether more tangible; tummy rolls, mental health discussions, bad days in the office.

But what happens when you share something you regret? And what happens when you can’t take it back?

Why sharing trauma is a murky business

While sharing a rogue tummy roll sits on the lighter end of performative vulnerability, there are much deeper moments being shared online outside the ‘safe space’ of a therapist’s office, or your best friend’s couch. And that’s where things get a little murky.

Social media outlets like Instagram have become a popular place for sharing triggering personal experiences, particularly when it comes to allegations of sexual misconduct, sexual assault, and even rape. Often the poster divulges stories of intensely personal and traumatic experiences, while also publicly naming and shaming their perpetrators.

While the benefits of social media as a platform for such allegations can be obvious to the poster – often silenced by their own industry, this is the one place where no one can ignore or downplay their experiences – they are heavily outweighed by the hidden disadvantages.

“What makes someone cool and approachable is someone being real. […] You want to move towards that because it feels attainable. It feels like it resonates with you.”

Last year I wrote an article about the rise of anonymous call out culture on Instagram, after numerous allegations of employee mistreatment at beauty giant Mecca emerged via self-appointed beauty industry watchdog, Estee Laundry.

Like their fashion counterpart, Diet Prada, the Instagram account shares anonymous tip-offs that appear to have questionable (and often zero) factual verification before publication to their 180,000 followers. This isn’t to say that these published allegations are fake, but rather, they skip the rigorous fact verification, and legal and ethical checks, required of a traditional media outlet.

Often such checks are as much for the victim as they are for the media outlet, or accused – they serve as a moment of pause to allow the victim to consider the legal implications of their accusation.

Last year, Diet Prada shared a series of damning screenshots from various models regarding two prominent fashion photographers. One was accused of seeking nude photos and nude photoshoots in exchange for free photos. This lead to allegations of a second who was accused of sexual assault.

Social media has long been a place of opportunity for predatory behaviour, and it’s important these allegations come to light – particularly when it references two men who, by virtue of this behaviour, have achieved prominence and wealth within a powerful industry.

But that power is also a concern when it comes to the victims – without rigorous verification, advice and legal support, these women may be exposing themselves to costly litigation, damaging trolling, and perhaps even more concerningly, a lack of mental health support to deal with their associated trauma.

It’s really not as easy as sharing a predatory screenshot, or disturbing story in an Instagram caption, to heal all those wounds.

As a journalist, I know a little about sharing personal trauma in exchange for column inches. Often you’re called on to lay your most intimate moments bare for the brief rush of a clickable headline. Sometimes you feel elated – there’s something about sending it out into the great abyss and not having to deal with the inevitable line of questioning that comes afterward. It’s a metaphorical scream into the void.

And other times you secretly wish you had kept your personal stories private.

For every influencer sharing a liberating #MeToo moment, there’s also an influencer who regretted their journey into the oversharing realm. Last year, influencer Lee Tilghman explained to her 300,000-strong community that the emotional toll of oversharing had exhausted her, and pushed her into taking a break from the daily grind of emoting online.

“Before my hiatus,” she said in a caption on her post, “I was closed off to the real world with very little social interactions with real people. By the end of the day I was so exhausted sharing and exerting so much of myself online, I didn’t have any time for my real life. I’m glad I’m not there anymore.

“In many ways I mistook sharing online for a true intimate relationship. […] Without face to face time, we become sick. In this new age of social media and instant sharing, connection, and response, there is gold in the pause, and sharing carefully and with intention.”

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Here’s a photo from my misty morning hike-and some thoughts regarding boundary setting on social media. It’s become so commonplace to share our lives online- one could even say we are in the age of “vulnerability porn”. Sharing can be cathartic and make me feel extremely connected and seen to my online community. But with such a new tool like social media, we don’t know the longterm implications of oversharing on social media yet. Before my hiatus, I was closed off to the real world with very little social interactions with real people. By the end of the day I was so exhausted sharing and exerting so much of myself online, I didn’t have any time for my real life. I’m glad I’m not there anymore. In many ways I mistook sharing online for a true intimate relationship. It can be great to share our lives on here, but I encourage everyone to check in with their IRL friends + communities, call a friend, see how they’re doing. Social media is no substitute for human connection. Without face to face time, we become sick. In this new age of social media and instant sharing, connection, and response, there is gold in the pause, and sharing carefully and with intention. I myself have learned a lot over the last 10+ years blogging. I have overshared, withheld, but I’ve never regretted any of it. It’s led me to where I am now. Grateful for this space and to be walking this journey with you all. XO Lee

A post shared by Lee Tilghman (@leefromamerica) on

As we share our most intimate moments with strangers, we also put our own need for genuine connection at arms distance. Often the responses we receive are empty and unhelpful; a heart emoji, a ‘hang in there’ devoid of the cute kitty poster. This shallow interaction can actually act as an amplifier of the poster’s feelings of isolation, rather than the sense of connection the person is desperately seeking.

We are being told that through such posts, we are normalising mental health – but does laying bare someone’s personal moments for the world to judge justify that normalising process?

I have learned a few times that once things are on the internet you can’t take them back. I’m not sure if I’ll regret past personal articles I’ve written. For now I don’t, and I appreciate the opportunity to share my experiences in the hopes of helping others.

In the end, whether that regret descends upon you like a bad hangover comes down to the reasons behind your choice to share. And when influencers are involved, the question of intention is key.

The problematic ethics of paying for performative posts

One of the most concerning aspects of this latest trend is the disturbing reality that some influencers are using performative vulnerability purely to drive engagement. And where there are likes, there are dollars.

Despite endless claims from publicists and marketers alike that influencer marketing is dead, reports show that influencer marketing spend is increasing. According to a Business Insider report on influencer marketing, “the influencer marketing industry is on track to be worth up to $15 billion by 2022, up from as much as $8 billion in 2019.”

As Instagram stars jump on the vulnerability bandwagon, their followers are swept up in their performative and seemingly relatable journey, and are even more likely to buy into any products associated with such posts.

“I think vulnerability has such power to it – in the sense of that connection,” says Watson. “I think the reason we are drawn to vulnerability is because we’re not vulnerable. That’s not a part of our culture. So I think that’s why it fascinates us – because we know on some level that it’s more real than what we portray [ourselves].”

The ethics behind using something that touches on mental health to sell products is problematic – but it is also powerful. There is the potential for deep emotional manipulation at play, particularly when you consider how potent and personal these posts can become. Add that to the questionable level of disclosure on paid influencer posts, and navigating when you’re being sold to; it gets even more difficult for followers to discern. 

“I think that’s why [vulnerability] fascinates us – because we know on some level that it’s more real than what we portray [ourselves].”

If influencers are using ‘performative vulnerability’ in order to game the engagement on social media, how does this diminish the very real challenges of mental health? Influencers, and the brands tapping them for campaigns, have to be particularly careful not to allow conversations around a genuine health issue deteriorate into a fleeting trend.

“On the one hand our intention really does matter,” Watson explains. “Ultimately the world we live in, people are driven by likes. And so we can’t pretend we exist in another world. But at the same time, if that’s the only motivation, then it won’t last long.”

Desanctis agrees. “There are obviously influencers and people on social media that aren’t there for the right reasons, and the genuine reasons,” she says. “But I think it’s pretty easy to be able to tell the pretenders. […] The less you’re trying to achieve something because of a number – the more companies [seeking to advertise with these influencers] can minimise that – the better.”

It’s hard to deny that there are positives to the increase in vulnerability we are seeing on our feeds. After all, influencers encourage us to do more than just buy things – they can also influence our behaviour. For every person that reacts to a deeply personal post with a cynical eye roll, there’s another who connects with the journey, and feels part of something bigger. In some ways, the intention doesn’t really matter. Who are we to judge what is “real” and what is not?

Sadfishing in particular can allow a poster to exploit internet anonymity in order to express thoughts that they may not have the ability or courage to express in real life. The issue here is that we must be careful not to conflate these forms of expression with real recovery or treatment. Without professional help on the other end, oversharing could prove even more damaging to someone’s mental state.

As the oft-quoted novelist Brené Brown says in Daring Greatly, “using vulnerability is not the same thing as being vulnerable; it’s the opposite — it’s armour.” 

So is performative vulnerability doing more harm than good?

The wave of vulnerability porn we are seeing should give us pause. Why are we more comfortable sharing our vulnerable moments with strangers, publicly, than we are with family and friends?

Some of the questions we need to ask ourselves centre around self-identity, our addiction to attention-seeking behaviours online, and a need for ongoing validation driven by little heart buttons.

We need to stop linking the idea of authenticity to these kinds of performative ‘realness’ posts, because there’s nothing less authentic than doing something for the likes. Even if we don’t want to publicly admit the brief flutter we get from a flurry of notifications rolling in.

“Everything we do, we want to always do things from a place of good intention,” says Watson, “but can we really guarantee that we always do? There’s always the part of us that wants the validation – whether that’s online or in person.

“There’s always the part of us that wants the validation – whether that’s online or in person.”

“So many things that we do have that other element to them, which is our narcissism or ego or whatever. But that’s not necessarily bad, that’s our human-ness. If we can keep striving to be more authentic, to be more ourselves, to dig deeper – that’s the main thing.”

Can we dig any deeper than reliving a traumatic life experience in public? Outing a co-worker for inappropriate behaviour in an online arena? Or is it possible that there’s something beyond the sadfishing, a realisation that experiencing other people’s problems – even from a distance – can somehow help you heal your own?

“With any cultural shift, there’s always going to be a teething period,” says Watson. “Because we’ve been so unable to share our vulnerabilities, if we fall too far the other way for a little while, that’s probably natural. I guess anything can be used as a manipulation – and anything can be used for a greater purpose.”

Desanctis is hopeful that it’s the latter – and that the trend is here to stay. “[Previously] it was about trying to show everyone what I’m wearing, or sell a jumper, or whatever it may be. Knowing now that I can also tap into this audience to help someone look in the mirror and feel better about what they see – that’s an incredible feeling.

“I feel very lucky.”