If you had asked me this time last week who Essena O’Neill was, I would have suggested maybe a Russian figure skater. While neither of those names sound particularly Russian, there wouldn’t have been much point in putting more thought into it, being I had no idea who she was, or why you were asking.
This week, however, I know who she is, and while I am not one of her 500,000 Instagram followers, I know why you’re asking.
O’Neill — barely 18, beautifully bronzed, blonde, fit as a fiddle and Australian, to boot — is one of the girls who has managed to cultivate a relatively massive social media following simply by living what appears to be the good life. Much like the socialites we used to follow around via the latest issue of Hello or the New York Times, today’s Instagram celebrities are normal people who try extra hard to look like they’ve been blessed with all the luck in the world.
Have they been? Sure, but so have we all. The difference, as in the case of O’Neill, is how obsessed we are with showing that off — and to what extent it becomes our reality or our daydream.
Last week, O’Neill took to her personal Instagram and YouTube accounts to announce that she was quitting social media. Painstakingly, she went back and deleted more than 2,000 photos from her photo feed and, further, changed all the captions on the remaining photos to ones that encourage the reader to look beyond the staged, perfect nature of the photo.
“Social media is not real life,” she states, over and over again. But of course, we already know that.
There is an unwritten responsibility that we all accept as we click on those “I agree” buttons that appear before an app downloads. That responsibility is to not forget, just because the technology is now in our hands, what we learned when Photoshop was exposed as the transformative tool it is. Just because we aren’t models or professional photographers or in the 1 per centile doesn’t mean we don’t have the ability to alter our images to meet those standards. We agree, when we use these platforms, to accept the images with a grain of salt — an understanding that life is not perfect, even though it looks like it is.
As a girl who proclaims she has been using social media as her career since she was 12, it’s no surprise O’Neill didn’t see that invisible disclaimer I just mentioned. Instead, being the vulnerable age she was, she found herself “obsessing” over the lives of social media’s elite — studying how to be like them until, finally, she became one of them.
O’Neill’s resignation from the world of paid promotions and day-long ‘candid’ beach shoots has, as one might expect, gone viral. She appears, most recently, on her own YouTube channel in tears and sans make-up, urging people — young people — to put their phones down and interact with the real, tangible, living, breathing world surrounding them.
To this I say here, here!
To think — a world where we are person to person not screen-to-screen, yes! A world where we look where we’re going and smile and nod, yes! A world where we aren’t made to feel obligated to be better than we are, yes, yes, yes!
What O’Neill doesn’t comment on, however, is the millions of social media users who have never used the platforms the way she has. She scolds us as if we, too, have been paid three hundred dollars to post a picture of ourselves with a tea bag.
O’Neill, herself, proves that social media is an extraordinary tool of communication and much like we need to filter out how much weight we give product placement and television commercials, we need to look at how much weight we place on those people who do have a substantial following.
I commend those who take a step back from feeling too absorbed in the screen-world, but I also appreciate those who partake in it — head and heart first.
There need not be any social media shaming just because someone is in recovery. What we need is a label — one that says, under all circumstances, please use it responsibly.
— Andria Parker is an Instagram-obsessed idealist with at least 600 words to share on every topic, ever.