The All Blacks’ historic success in the Rugby World Cup isn’t the only thing circulating the web this week. Interspersed between valiant shots of the boys in black are a myriad of articles featuring Australian teen and ex-social-media queen Essena O’Neill.
Who is Essena O’Neill? Up until this week, O’Neill was your typical ‘internet celebrity’. At just 18 years old, she had over 500,000 Instagram followers, 200,000 YouTube subscribers, and 60,000 people viewing her Snapchat story every day. Her online image was the mainstream dream; the epitome of a certain kind of perfection that seems beyond the realms of possibility for mere mortals. But this week Essena O’Neill deleted her Snapchat and Tumblr, and re-edited her remaining Instagram photos with captions that she feels are a more authentic expression of reality. O’Neill’s Instagram has a new title: ‘Social media is not real life’.
O’Neill has rehashed a regularly resurfacing debate around the virtue of social media. Everything O’Neill has to say in her explanatory video is interesting. She talks about the crippling desire for social validation through likes and subscribers. She reveals how it took hundreds of attempts to get a photo that highlighted a perfect thin waistline. We also learn how companies paid her to wear their clothes. The subtle advertising was hidden because we don’t react to an Instagram account the way we do to a larger-than-life animated billboard advertisement. But this is the reality of modern social media.
I think O’Neill’s message is very important. While most of us have a good understanding that things like advertisements in magazines are not real, understanding authenticity on social media can be a lot harder. The fact that sites like YouTube and Instagram are user-oriented makes us think: “hey, these are real people so this content must be authentic”. But social media is never a representation of an entire reality, it is only a snapshot.
The point at which I become critical of such messages is when they induce ‘moral panic’. The global media, from the Guardian to Teen Vogue to Catalogue Magazine, has reported the story. Every few months, something like this (remember this video?) comes along, goes viral, and suddenly every one of your Facebook friends is a philosopher/psychologist proclaiming how social media is ‘poisoning our minds’ and ‘corrupting our sweet children’.
Social media is both good and bad, and dismissing it as ‘society’s downfall’ seems to be entirely too simple. Social media may facilitate cyberbullying, but it can also facilitate people from opposite ends of the planet bonding over a shared love and creating real social relationships. It may encourage anti-social behaviour, and it may encourage collaboration and innovation across cyber-cultures. It entirely comes down to how the technology is used.
Moderation is the key; I believe social media has its place in society, as long as we don’t let it control how we feel about ourselves, or become a lens through which we distance ourselves from real world experiences. Maybe you shouldn’t Snapchat your meal every single time you eat at a restaurant, but why shouldn’t we able to share a photo of a beautifully constructed chocolate soufflé tower with our friends?
Essena O’Neill’s stance is food for thought. It is heartening to see society’s idea of perfection deconstructed. Not everything you see on social media is real, but I don’t think that means you can’t be authentic in an online space. These issues are important to discuss, but that doesn’t mean I will be deleting my Instagram anytime soon.Support Villainesse