November 03, 2015

The Internet is what you make it


A teenage Instagrammer called Essena O’Neill has quit social media and the Internet is intrigued. She’s frantically deleted 2,000 strategically placed images on her Instagram feed and about to erase all content hosted on her viral YouTube channel. Her overnight success is now in overnight shutdown mode.

Her situation of making thousands from her social media following is not relatable to most, but the fact that she’s been knee-deep in “social media culture” since she was twelve is. She’s a huge blogger in Australia, with 500k fans on Instagram, and getting nearly a million views per video on YouTube. She’s one of the more aspirational vloggers, admired for her health and looks, often posting pictures of her gorgeous, toned stomach, showing her viewers why she’s gone vegan and thousands of people are interested in What She Eats In A Day.

But now Essena has flipped, feels dirty and is purging her social media channels and life of the fake icky stuff.

Unsurprisingly, everyone has an opinion on this.

A part of me just feels deeply sorry for her. I count my lucky stars that I didn’t grow up in a world endless communication when I was a teenager. I had a Nokia brick and had 10 free texts a week. And I tell you what, I would pick those texts wisely. I would not waste my texts, they were precious to me, especially I couldn’t afford to top up my Pay-As-You-Go card.

Now, though, anyone and everyone can send a WhatsApp, a Snapchat, a Vine, a iMessage, an email, a Facebook message, a Twitter DM, an Instagram comment or a FaceTime. We’re in such a self-publishing, freedom-to-communicate world right now that we can start blogs and write on places like Medium and reach people instantly. Self-made YouTuber numbers rival the circulation numbers of Vogue. We are constantly available. We are in a golden-age. Anyone can be famous. Sure: the world is our Oyster.

But that’s not the issue here. Since when was freedom of speech a bad thing? But the human emotion behind selling ourselves as commodities is. It’s the fact that in order to feel like a worthy human-being (especially in a teenager’s mind) you must feel validated. That validation used to come from old-fashioned means back when I was a teenager: getting invited to the “cool” party, getting winked at by a boy; someone politely asking if they could sit next to you in class; getting picked out at the school dance. Now, I’ve read teens say that those little highs come from a boy “liking” an old selfie of yours. It’s called “Deep Liking” — nothing more flattering than scrolling back through someone’s timeline, apparently.

Imagining myself as a teen having to get more “Likes” than the next person, gives me the eeby jeebies. Teenagers wanting to be “vloggers” is concerning. Not because there aren’t aspiring people doing wonderful things (there are, lots of YouTubers really are worthy of the “role model” title) but because the teenagers are mostly aspiring to the big following, not the creative outputs behind the success. In recent survey teens said they wanted to be a blogger because “Bloggers are admired by others” and “bloggers get sent free products and invites to prestigious events”. That, to me, suggests they want the validation of the followers more than anything else.

The Internet is an incredible place to share your interests. If you love writing, be a blogger. If you love fashion, take photos of your clothes. If you love performing, grab a camera. If you love music, upload it YouTube. If you want to illustrate, share it on Tumblr. The list goes on. But, remember the art. Remember the craft. Remember the reason why.

So I understand Essena’s public breakdown. She’s got caught up in the dark side of it all. Lost sight of the art she wanted to make, and the person she wanted to be.

This is a conversation we need to be having.

I’m a millenial, I’m not “old”, I’m 26 years old, but I grew up and found my feet before social media kicked off. I love posting a selfie but mainly because it’ll be my Dad or mates who “Like” it. There’s no pressure. Equally I’m not in a situation where thousands of strangers liking my photo pays my bills.

However — we all know it is possible to be authentic on social media. There is nothing wrong with branded content. Artists need to be paid. But I do believe this authenticity comes from exactly that: creating meaningful art. A blog post that uncovers your truly feelings; a photo that tells a story; a helpful recipe; a truthful review, an honest opinion on something. You owe it your audience to make it count, and make it real.

Social media is not to blame here. It’s up to us not to treat it like a game. Treating it like a numbers game will only end in tears. Chasing clicks will leave us hollow. Creating meaningful content that people enjoy will make the difference. Social media can be fantastic if we keep it fucking real.

It is not healthy to rate people like they are an item on Amazon. The number of people following your life does not define who you are. You are more than social media, more than your job, more than your followers.

And this isn’t a time to get defensive.

Her story isn’t about you. She’s not saying that your selfies are fake. She’s not saying everyone on Instagram is a phoney. She’s not saying you can’t do what you want.

She’s simply saying that as a teenager, growing up in a world of Likes, Ticks, Stars, Views, Subscribers, Comments, Followers and Fans — she has lost her way in the world.

And I don’t blame her.

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3 Responses

  1. nikkiana says:

    I’d never heard of Essena O’Neill before this morning, and I think she’s bringing up a lot of interesting points. I’m curious to see where this conversation that she’s started ends up going, and what she’s learned.

    It’s so easy to get caught up in the instant affirmation of social media (I know I do, and my audience is fairly limited to just my friends), and make decisions on how to use your influence to make money that might not be in line with your values… I think they’re important things for content creators… and perhaps especially young content creators to be aware of and consider.

    So, kudos to her… Seems like she’s got a good head on her shoulders.

  2. Amy says:

    I really like this response to what’s happened with O’Neill. I’d never heard of her until this, and have seen so many people I normally admire get really personally offended and defensive about what she has said.

    I think you’re really right, growing up constantly surrounded by social media is definitely concerning-I remember the amount of drama MySpace used to cause so I can’t imagine what it must be like with all of the platforms available now. Even though I’m a ‘grown-up’, I still get mildly upset when I don’t get any likes on Facebook-and that’s limited to my friends-so that constant validation from other people is something that does need to be explored more, especially when it comes to young internet users in my opinion.

  3. Hey there Emma

    Good post, and this is a going to be a long reply as it’s something I have thought about a lot.

    As someone who is now in her early 50s, who witnessed the birth of the web and seen it’s evolution, it’s safe to say that one can define ones lfe now by pre and post web. It’s been a fascinating ride thus far and I have seen the web change a hell of a lot over the last 20 years or so, some of it good, some of it bad.

    My daughter is now ten and lives in a house that is totally tech oriented (my husband is head of networks, hosting and communications for a very large media company) and I too have always web active since forever and learned to code in the 90s. There are devices all over the house. I have an Imac, a Macbook Pro, iphone and a ‘phablet’. Orla has a Kindle, her own laptop and now her Daddy has given her a second hand iphone 5c for doing well at school (despite that I told her she wouldn’t get a phone until she was 16!!)

    However, despite the abundance of tech at her disposal, I am happy to report, she doesn’t spend too much time on it. Unlike many of her friends, she doesn’t have a skype acount (because at ten she is too young and their TOU clearly state, 13 years), in fact she has no ‘socials’. Her tech time is limited to weekends, and there are strict rules and conditions associated to use of her new phone. To be honest, she isn’t that fussed about it. She was chuffed to bits to get it, but has spent most of her time using it to send me kisses and hearts on Whatsapp!

    Oh, and she has a blog, which I created for her to improve her writing skills as she is an avid reader and writer, but in truth, she likes scribbling on paper and said to me ‘that she just likes to know it’s there’.

    Because both myself and my husband spend a lot of time online, and I use the full spectrum of socials, I am always been very aware of the dangers of living ones life through the eyes of others, and falling into the trap of seeking external validation, and that is very easy to do as an artist. I have seen many artists create less for the pleasure and satisfaction of what they do, and more for the ‘feedback high’ they will get from sharing online. For this reason, I don’t share all the work I do, in fact…as an artist I have always been very lazy about putting myself out there.

    So, as a mother to a 21st kid in a world that feels the need to share everything, I have impressed upon her always…that what is way more important is what is happening in the ‘here and now’ and that whilst it’s fun to have online friendships and connect, to be careful not to get sucked into it and fail to invest in real life community, friendships, activities and interests. I maintain that it’s too easy to live vicariously through others, compare your life to theirs and seek external validation.

    She is a very grounded kid, happy in her own skin, and doesn’t bow to peer pressure. She loves comic books, sci-fi, fantasy, drawing, reading, writing and swimming. She quite likes me buying her cool clothes, but is totally scruffy and really doesn’t care. I couldn’t be more proud of her.

    Sorry for the length of my post, I could have waxed lyrical for longer….

    Lorrie xxx

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