Earlier this month, a social media darling punctured and eviscerated the very platforms she had used to gain fame.
Essena O’Neill, an Australian teenager with over 600,000 followers on the image-sharing site Instagram, deleted with a tear-stained flourish over 2000 posts which hip brands had paid her to promote. She left behind 96 pictures of herself, the captions edited.
In one photo, she wears a stylish and skimpy bikini with hair perfectly curled, the sun radiant behind her. The caption now reads: “Not real life. Only reason we went to the beach this morning was to shoot these bikinis because the company paid me and I looked good to society’s current standards.”
Alongside a school formal photo she writes “I didn’t pay for the dress, took countless photos trying to look hot for Instagram. It made me feel incredibly alone.”
At first glance, Essena was throwing a tantrum – a rich white girl complaining because she didn’t get her way. But it wasn’t just the act of exploding social media’s self-deceiving carapace that was important – powerful even. She understood why.
Essena is of a generation which has known social media as eternal. It was there when they hit adolescence and will remain there afterwards. The tail of the generation prior (which your humble writer is a part of) had to adapt texting on cheap phones to Facebook chats, but adapt they did.
These new forms of communication dominate and govern our young lives from the very age we are beginning to process and understand human interaction. Social media is not an extra appendage, another tool in the armoury. It is the medium by which we interact with the world.
But then again, is it really ‘the world’ we’re interacting with, or an invention which breeds superficiality and fabrication?
Other young internet stars have critiqued Essena’s turncoating: Social media cannot be blamed as the platforms are only the sum total of every user’s input. It can be whatever you want it to be. To an extent, this might true. The ability to connect with other human beings instantly can lead to remarkable societal shifts. As the journalist Paul Mason notes, revolutions like the Arab Spring can be “planned on Facebook, organised on Twitter and broadcast to the world via Youtube”. Similarly, despite inevitable echo chambers, these forms can produce much-vaunted “safe spaces” which “give voice” to the previously voiceless.
These examples, however, are exceptions to a rule, and that rule is people like Essena. She is one of more than a billion people on Facebook and 300 million who use Instagram, and the reach of the ‘content’ she produces defines the common themes of those platforms. Political sentiments can’t compete for popularity against a nicely-filtered image of someone’s lunch.
The popularity of Essena’s glamorous and sun-drenched images – and the countless others created and shared by users like her – is key to why social media can be so sinister, and why Essena herself rebelled from them. These endless streams of beach scenes and beaming faces create an alternate reality that we cannot escape, and cannot help but believe, because the platforms are such an intrinsic part of our lives.
Consider the way Facebook has coerced young people into perfecting profile pictures – either in selfies or with friends at a party. Countless snaps are taken (as Essena mentions above) and the undesirable ones quickly deleted. Even the most mundane house parties are made out like lavish celebrations. It all seems so arbitrary until the ‘social’ aspect is introduced. ‘Likes’, ‘favourites’, ‘retweets’, ‘shares’ – the number of which becomes an indicator for the user’s worth as a social being.
As YouTube video essay-maker Nerdwriter notes, these figures become “a balm for the symptoms of sadness, a substitute for creative accomplishments - a PR tool among friends”. This is nothing more, he notes, than “an insidious form of self-deception”.
This, in turn, paints a false veneer on genuine, human interaction - what Essena calls “contrived perfection made to get attention."
Young peoples’ self-esteem and self-respect are intensely entangled in the online mesh – a web of fabrication which chases a myth of authenticity but creates fiction in the process. Through a screen, life’s reflections are distorted and often blurred, smudging real and powerful interactions with perfect and perfected neverlands. Even what might be completely legitimate representations of other lives are still forced through a prism that we have no real power to interpret correctly.
Once can only hope Essena’s dissent against the norm goes some way to change our habits, sending us back into reality and leaving our invented online personas behind.