Dear Social Media, It's You, Not Me

Source: @essenaoneill on Instagram

Over the past 24 hours, I’ve been having a great and in-depth discussion with my best friend, about Essena O’Neill’s decision to quit social media.

I’ve been following O’Neill on social media since the beginning of 2013. At the time, she was in year 11, she was posting mostly about health and fitness and was using her own journey to inspire and motivate others. I was following her for many reasons, but mostly it was because she motivated me to look after myself better during a time where I needed it most. In fact, I even have a picture of her, back when she modelled in a Lorna Jane catalogue, quoted saying, 'I believe self-love is essential in creating a life of bliss,' pinned to the wall of my bedroom at my parent's house.

Recent developments in her social media presence have fascinated me beyond belief. I work a lot with social media from a personal and professional perspective. It is an amazing tool to get your voice and opinions heard, to share you story and to generate amazing conversation and communities.

For some, likes, comments and followers are a commodity. They represent self-worth, social acceptance and monetary income. For others, social media is just a way to share little updates with friends or family, or perhaps a place to promote a new book and in my case, my photography. 

I spend hours reading about social media and using it on a daily basis. My obsession doesn’t extend to finding some sort of social approval by posting images online but does, however, focus on the anthropological and psychological uses of social media.

I’ve seen Essena’s focus on social media shift dramatically over the last couple of years.

First she was promoting health and fitness. Her guides were easy, she was upfront that she wasn’t a nutritionist or personal trainer, she took into consideration that her target publics lived with their parents and accommodated for that. Smart, simple and entirely effective.

During this time, she also promoted clothing from a boutique she was working at part-time. I’m not sure if she ever got paid for talking about their clothing online, but it became a part of her online identity, something that her followers expected of her.

It was only natural that when O’Neill started gaining traction on Instagram that brands would contact her, asking for promotion of their products in exchange for money. She has already built up a great clientele of customers who were fashion focused and looking to her as a style icon.

Celebrity endorsement is nothing new in the marketing world. However, until the rapid increase of social media, this type of marketing was limited to the television, radio and print advertising and never featured ‘every-day people’ aka ‘online influencers’.

Amongst fashion, O’Neill also promoted various tea-toxes, healthy food, skincare, makeup and homeware brands. When it came to endorsing these products on Instagram, she was one of the best at hiding sponsored posts in amongst great content and meaningful captions. 

I knew that these images were crafted for the brand, I knew that she was getting paid to promote them, but at the same time, I didn’t really mind. The value and the level of her content was great. It never felt like an advertisement. It felt like she was bringing these products to her followers because she believed in them. And maybe, at that time, she did believe in what she was selling to her followers. 

It seems that O’Neill is blaming social media when really, she should be looking at herself. No one forced her into promoting products on social media, no one told her that she had to post pictures of herself looking happy in bikinis. She chose to deceptively promote this particular lifestyle, just as she chose to delete all of her photos and (ironically) gain further media attention.

One of O'Neill's reworked captions on her Instagram profile. Source: @essenaoneill on Instagram

I personally think it is great that Essena wants to discuss the beauty behind the madness that is capturing sponsored Instagram photographs. It’s a conversation that needs to be had, just as we need to talk about how many young people do feel that their self-worth is measured by followers, likes and comments. However, not everyone who uses social media is affected by these issues. Many people don’t place such a high regard on meaningless stats or internet points. Sure, sometimes seeing a photo on Instagram may make you feel a little FOMO, or it might make you wish that you had an amazing wardrobe and travelling the world, but most people should be able to just shake it off, let that feeling pass and get on with their lives rather than dwelling on something currently unattainable.

The worst part about this whole issue is that now O’Neill has the audacity to ask for money from the people viewing her website and videos. Sure, it’s nice to be paid to do something you love and that you are passionate about, but please don’t go ranting on the internet about how you haven’t got enough money to pay your rent because YOU willingly left YOUR ‘job’ that YOU were apparently getting quite a lot of money for. 

Source: Still taken from Overwhelmed and Beyond Words Grateful on Vimeo

As Essena points out, multiple times, in her recent videos, she won the genetic lottery. The media isn’t writing about her discussion of online transparency and marketing ploys because most people are already aware that Instagram and other social networking sites only represent a partial reality. That isn’t news. They’re writing about her leaving social media because she is a conventionally attractive, blonde female, who was smart enough to make a fairly decent living off her good looks and is willing to throw that all away. 

My question is, if she wanted to promote transparency online, why didn’t she just start being honest with her followers rather than deleting all of her social channels?

And now I’m going to scroll through Instagram on my phone, like yet another picture of the Eiffel Tower and spend ten minutes wishing that I could be in Paris instead of cold, rainy Melbourne, before moving on with my life to other, more important things.

You can read more about Essena O'Neill's dramatic change on her website, Let's Be Game Changers.

Some othergreat/interesting/thought provoking articles on this debate include: Mashable, Daily Mail Australia, Mama Mia, From the Corners of the Curve and The Guardian.

About me:

For those of you interested, apart from a professional photographer I'm currently studying for my undergraduate degree in Public Relations and Media Communication at Deakin University. My interest in this topic is personal but also professional as I work as a social media manager and advisor, and have been utilising social channels since I was fourteen to promote my photographic work. 

social mediaCarolyn West