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Essena O’Neil and the Critique of Social Media

Holiday Issue: Innovation and the Mind

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There are very few teenagers these days that can say they haven’t spent hours and hours on Instagram and Facebook, scrolling through the accounts of models and celebrities with seemingly perfect lives. Essena O’Neil, a former Youtuber and Instagram model, is looking to change the way we perceive and present ourselves and others on social media. O’Neil had over 600,000 Instagram followers and 250,000 Youtube subscribers before she decided, very publicly, to quit all of her social media platforms altogether. Before deleting all of her Instagram posts, she edited the captions of her seemingly colorful, carefree life to expose the truth behind them. Her “tell-all” video is called “Why I think Social Media Sucks”; and in it, she renounces all of her media and admits that her posts and pictures, particularly on Instagram, were completely contrived and contrasted sharply with how she felt on the inside. She states: “It was never my conscious intention, but I deluded a lot of people… Call it deception, manipulation, lying, not saying the whole truth… I was both addicted to social approval and terrified no one would value me for myself. So I rewrote the captions of these false photos with short shots of reality.” In place of her old internet persona, she has started up a website, letsbegamechangers.com, that aims to be a hub of artistic expression, social awareness and positive change.

        O’Neil has received a truly mixed bag of responses to her anti-social media message, with many praising her bravery, but others fighting back against the idea that social media is purely a negative thing. Her drastic call to action has sparked an important dialogue on social media and its impact on our society. I admire O’Neils bravery in renouncing her contrived life on social media to favor an internet presence that she feels is more positive and authentic. She challenges her viewers to go for one week without social media, which I think is a great goal; social media can often be distracting and limiting, and it can be very refreshing to take a break. However, I can’t bring myself to agree with some of the generalizations she has made regarding social networking as a whole, and I believe some of her statements are discrediting some of the positive changes it can inspire. This isn’t to say that it is in any way healthy to become obsessed with likes and follower counts; except to say that her case represents an extreme within the realm of social media obsession. Becoming consumed by petty numbers is an obvious danger on a platform on which we can view the amount of people have liked, commented, shared, and followed. There is no denying that social media can be a catalyst for this kind of insincerity and negative self-image.

        This doesn’t mean we can invalidate all of social media as being contrived purely for attention, wealth, and fame. A lot of the media we see in general is fabricated in some way; this isn’t limited purely to social websites. We should know to always question the media we consume and the messages we take in. It is crucial to be aware of  how powerful social media can be in our lives and be careful to not become wrapped up in its allure.

        Despite this, online media can be a powerful tool for social commentary and artistic/self-expression; it is negative only when it is used in such a detrimental way. To discredit the platform of social media is to deny that it can be a powerful tool for innovation and change.

        I am inspired by O’Neil’s drive to ‘take back the internet’ in a way that raises awareness of issues and causes that are bigger than just the persona we try to convey online. However, I am not convinced that social media is completely to blame for the problems of inauthenticity and the need for social approval that she cites. I believe that social media can go in either direction, and it is up to us to decide whether that direction is negative or positive. There is nothing inherently wrong with using social media, as long as you don’t allow social media to use you.

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Essena O’Neil and the Critique of Social Media