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Vanity Fair praises Rihanna's social media "authenticity"

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The word “authenticity” came up about once every three minutes in all the discussions I had with social-media managers, experts, and the celebrities themselves—and, almost every time, my thoughts would turn to Rihanna. (To be fair, my thoughts turn to Rihanna immediately in almost all contexts.) In 2012, around the same time as the release of her seventh album, aptly titled Unapologetic, Rihanna’s social-media presence seemed to shift. Previously, the posts on her accounts had been bland and oriented around promoting her music, seemingly posted by her label. But, at about this point, as if the “real” Rihanna had been unlocked by some kind of video-game cheat code, the singer began posting content that felt, wholly, like “the real her.” She would share photos of silly and strange off-the-cuff moments with longtime friends; she would “clap back” to haters on Twitter; she would post video clips from raucous parties (and chill parties, too). She went from coming across as a cipher to . . . well, coming across like one of your friends from college who was always up to something wild, off to a warehouse party at two A.M. when you were ready to call it a night.

Rihanna was not the first celebrity to embrace his or her “true” persona on social media, but her shift was one of the most pronounced, and indicative of an overall trend as celebrities moved away from working with consultancies, such as theAudience, and decided to take more control. Yes, they (in most cases) still had help, but it was handled less overtly.

“Most of the celebrities that actually have been effective on [social media] definitely are willing to allow a pretty high level of transparency,” mused Frank Cooper, chief marketing officer at BuzzFeed (and formerly C.M.O. of global consumer engagement at PepsiCo), citing Rihanna and also Taylor Swift as celebrities who have managed to perfect the “authenticity” smoothie recipe, making their fan bases feel as if they know them intimately. “They don’t have to produce everything, but they need to be at the center of the interaction with their audience and with their followers.”

Tania Yuki, founder and C.E.O. of Shareablee, which helps businesses process and parse social-media content, echoed Cooper’s take. “The whole challenge of celebrity in bygone eras was what you can manage to conceal from the public,” she told me. “It’s so interesting that now the challenge of celebrity is how to really open the floodgate and reveal as much as possible about how you’re living in the world.”

But just because it seems organic and authentic—just because it would be nice to believe that Chris Hemsworth wants you to see his biceps curls because he has access to your dream journal and is willing to share that experience with you, or that Ariana Grande wants to live-stream a dance party with her backup dancers and friends because she wishes you were there bopping with them—doesn’t mean it’s really that simple.

“No matter how organic it looks and feels, it’s no longer simply a person who happens to be famous generating content on a daily basis that they feel is interesting,” Cooper said. “That may be one part of it, but underneath it all there’s definitely the notion that this is a way to market their products. This is a way to build their ‘brand,’ a way to shore up their fan base.”

And there are often many others involved. “These stars [now] have a lot of help from different people to publish this stuff,” Mulford said. “But they certainly don’t want anybody to know that someone is publishing on their behalf.”

Yes, that “someone”: for artists who are touring, or working on location, or otherwise uninterested or occupied, the social-media manager often serves as translator, interpreter, gatekeeper, and Judy-Greer-supportive-best-friend character all in one.

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