If you're reading this, I can safely assume that you're a social media user – possibly of three or more networking sites. And, in being one, you have most likely heard about the 18 year old Australian YouTuber and Instagram-er (because apparently that's a profession now) Essena O'Neill, who has publicly announced that she's 'quitting social media' – kind of.
Essena has gained over 200,000 subscribers on YouTube and over half a million followers on the picture sharing networking site Instagram. Whilst her YouTube channel (before deletion) consisted of expressing her passion towards healthy vegan living and animal rights- along with her journey to achieving physical and mental wellbeing- her (now deleted) Instagram account was a montage of what can be described as the ideal of perfection and beauty; think filtered bikini shots revealing a wash-board stomach and glowing skin, dreamy clothing and LA beach views.But in the past week, O'Neill admitted (albeit ironically) in a YouTube video that her content is inauthentic: it’s all highly edited, some pictures were taken for financial gain (including $400 to snap an Instagram photo of herself in a dress), and many were just one of hundreds of shots her little sister was forced to take as she ‘sucked in her stomach.’ The fame and following she had gained through the two social media platforms consumed her life, giving her a warped sense of fulfilment and a diminished sense of identity. Essena further admitted that, despite the global admiration she had achieved online, she in fact felt 'miserable' and 'lost'. Despite achieving her dream of gaining thousands of admirers and millions of 'likes', her online status was, in her words, never enough.
When I first watched the (again, now deleted) video of Essena (who was no doubt addressing a deep-rooted issue that has long been overdue), I was not only emotional but immediately agreed with her. It is a sad reality that some of us do succumb to this idea that being famous for simply 'being you'- just as many Instagram models and YouTube stars are- will equate to fulfilment and self-love. It is a sad truth that many of us feel the urge to post our lives online, whether it’s a career milestone, a party, or a new romantic relationship in order for it to feel validated.
However, Essena makes a bold claim in saying that social media purely serves to enable self-promotion and public approval: ‘everyone’s doing it, we just keep putting up staged photos in desperate hopes others will approve’. Other people’s experience and use of social media does not account for everyone's experience, whether you post about your career or pastimes. I have never depended upon my Instagram feed or my Facebook profile picture to help define who I am, or, more importantly, who I wish I was. Therefore, it comes as no surprise to a social media user like me that Essena did not achieve self-actualisation the more her follower count grew. Does this not highlight that the outcome of social media stems from the user and not abstractly from our computer screens?
Indeed, social media can, for some, act as a substitute for real-world experiences and relationships, but it can also become an addition to it. Social media has created support groups and friendships, many of which are then brought into the real world; it educates people about times and places that they may have never known to have existed; it can help people discover and adopt hobbies and lifestyles; it has undoubtedly been a platform for social and political activism. This looks a lot like Essena's dream of a society with a ‘sense of undeniable empowerment or even a slight interest in global issues.’
As a world in which we have created, isn't social media what we make it to be? One can fall victim to the superficiality of social life, both in its digital and physical form; whilst social media can enable a person to lead a somewhat double-life- when one falls victim to the fabricated and shallow side that social media contrives- perhaps it says more about the individual and their misjudged values than about social media itself. Perhaps it is Essena who was being fake. Perhaps social media was a tool she used in order to live out her superficial ideals, and to achieve her desperate need to be acknowledged and valued in the hope that she would then value herself.But in saying all this, I am going to leave the link to her new website (again, slightly ironic) letsbegamechangers.com. This website aims to increase the number of young people of the digital generation to live more consciously, and to educate themselves in important issues such as 'veganism, environmentalist, gender equality, and global issues' – and, more importantly, to make rapid changes.
And although Essena seems to neglect that there are people who exist that are doing just this (and with technology as a tool to do so) – we can do more. We can use social media in so many more valuable ways – because it is, in fact, ours.
Edited by Tia Ralhan