Utter the words “social media” and immediately you’ll be bombarded with a flurry criticisms and complaints about the nature of today’s obsession with screens and devices.
The platform has become universally synonymous with ideas of vanity, superficiality and self-promotion, and despite the truth that social media is surely the most influential and widely used ‘commodity’ across all socioeconomic and generational classes, it seems as though the mere thought of various apps and websites now inspires disgust in almost every consumerist demographic.
Even millennials, once condemned as the sole purveyors of social media’s many evils, are beginning to reject the virtual world in an attempt to reclaim their perceptions of reality.
Earlier this week, Instagram celebrity and Australian blogger Essena O’Neill uprooted the online realm by shutting down her account on the photo-sharing app, declaring a clean break from social media and re-captioning her most popular pictures to read “[this] is not real life.”
O’Neill has denounced social media as an “illusion,” attributing years of insecurities and mental turmoil to her gripping preoccupation with ‘likes,’ followers and paid promotions.
Her virtual fame was highly profitable, but she professes that the approximate $2,000 that she received for each post touting a clothing brand or lifestyle product made her feel as if she was deluding young girls into thinking that contrived images were realistic.
Before O’Neill purged her account of thousands of pictures, her Instagram page featured a spread of polished and perfectly posed snapshots of herself doing yoga at the beach, hiking scenic forestscapes and lounging in designer clothing.
“Everything I did was for likes and for followers. I did shoots for hours just to get photos for Instagram,” she said of the pictures, revealing that she spent countless hours a day setting up and taking photos just to post one “candid” image.
Now, O’Neill will completely disconnect from Instagram, YouTube and Tumblr, and continue to advocate for veganism and creative self-expression through her website, which will include, she notes, “no likes or views or followers… just my content as raw as I want.”
Essena O’Neill received instant praise for her revelation. Followers, fellow bloggers and models alike lauded her bravery in admitting the burden that comes with maintaining internet celebrity; like O’Neill, many agreed that amassing millions of followers and racking up ‘likes’ failed to deliver any sense of validation, and instead left them with feelings of intense loneliness and poor self-worth. They all share similar stories of battles with depression and low esteem, problems which were exacerbated by the ‘comparison trap’ that social media platforms facilitate.
Considering that these women have experienced considerable popularity via Instagram, Tumblr, etc., one must wonder how younger or less noteworthy media consumers–those who are not exalted or celebrated by millions of strangers on a daily basis–feel in regards to their own status and personal value.
I myself am a media junkie. Instagram, I suppose, is my drug of choice. I can fall victim to hours of mindlessly scrolling through pages of photos of what I presume to be snippets of other people’s lives, and although I consider myself to be an adequate critic of the images that I’m absorbing, there’s no way of truly knowing which situations are constructed, which captured moments have been re-created and posed just to elicit a certain response.
I want to believe that I’m a responsible viewer, but how can I ensure that the endless onslaught of ‘fitspos,’ ‘inspos,’ ‘thinspos’ won’t permeate my better judgement? And even when I do make the conscious effort to censor the content of feed and limit my exposure to the photoshopped or promotional pictures that ‘insta-phenoms’ disseminate, there’s always the lingering comparison that exists between myself and my peers. Am I having that much fun at college? Is my family as impossibly photogenic as theirs? Can I bust out an impeccably-formed handstand on a beach? (The answer to that one is no, no I can’t).
In essence, social media is a status symbol. It’s manipulated to portray a hierarchy of social importance, and the supposed success or admiration that it provides is no different than the prestige conveyed by any other commodity item.
However, as with most market items, I believe that the media isn’t inherently good or evil; the way in which we allow it to influence our lives and our ideas dictates its degree of negativity.
It’s the responsibility of each consumer to select subject matter that will enhance their quality of life, whether that’s content that connects people, stimulates the senses, spreads ideas, provides humor, educates, promotes movements, advertises high-end clothing or cultivates beauty norms.
We have our own preferences, so we should claim agency over the differing impact of virtual messages.
I commend Essena O’Neill for rejecting Instagram and being honest about its detrimental effect on her life. But with that being said, O’Neill is indirectly relaying the notion that all people who participate in social media are brainwashed, deluded and contributing to the demise of youth culture. She refers to apps and websites as a united, cult-like entity, a group that one can either exist in or renounce entirely.
Perhaps we can’t ignore the impact of these false realities that O’Neill is fighting against, and maybe, in spite of our attempts to become intelligent consumers, there is an irrevocable psychological toll that comes with the uninterrupted stream of images and advertizing.
I don’t believe this to be true, but more importantly, social media is a well-established facet of 21st century culture, and as such its presence is unlikely to wane in the near future; so, it’s far more productive to create a conversation about adaptation to media than it is to attempt a technological overthrow.
O’Neill has played an important role in informing millions of media consumers, but it’s unrealistic to expect the rest of her generation to follow suit and remove themselves from popular culture.
In the meantime, it’s imperative that we remain mindful of the influence of online content and accept singular responsibility for the messages that interfere with our own lives.