Essena O’Neill is an 18-year-old teenager from Australia, and was not unlike many others in the world today, as she had a high presence of social media. On Instagram in particular, O’Neill accumulated more than 500,000 followers, making many teens around the world jealous of this one girl’s lifestyle. But this past Saturday, she made an announcement I don’t think anyone would have expected: Essena O’Neill is not only quitting social media altogether, but showing the lesser-known system of the institution as a whole. With her unique experience in the world of self-promotion, she has given the people around the world something to think about before hitting the upload button.
It’s not a new view that social media creates a self-obsessed culture, where people around the world are comparing themselves to one another, often with the result being a hatred toward one’s own body or way of life. Social media is full of made-up personas, often with the goal of impressing strangers, but there is an underbelly of self-and-brand-promotion not widely known about the e-culture. In this case, Essena O’Neill chose to reveal her story, which is laced with corruption she didn’t know she needed to overcome.
October 27 2015 marked the first day of her opposition statement, and she spared no expense. She went through her Instagram profile and deleted over 2,000 pictures she claims “served no real purpose other than self-promotion.” But the 18-year-old didn’t stop there. She went through the rest of her posts, 96 in all, and completely changed each caption to reveal the true nature behind each photo, showing a pain behind the smiling eyes of each picture and revealing more about her than these pictures ever could on their own.
One such edit was on a photo of when she was 16 years old, posing for a selfie in front of her mirror wearing a strapless bikini. Her new caption reads “and yet another photo taken purely to promote my 16-year-old body. This was my whole identity. That was so limiting. Made me incredibly insecure. You have no idea.” You would have never known the secret limitations behind this photo, since it seems so simple, with a young girl smiling brightly, looking great in a colorful swimsuit.
Not all of her edits were on such revealing pictures. There is something so raw about the way she speaks in these new captions that calls for a serious consideration over one’s own social media posts. Even the simple photos she looks back on and remembers the need for validation, and sometimes these are the ones that have the most jarring transformations.
A close up picture of Essena wearing a cute white top and chunky turquoise necklace shows her lovely smile and wavy blonde hair. The picture seems to stand for itself, and shows the simple joy of the teen’s life, until your eyes move to the caption, which reads, “’Please like this photo, I put on makeup, curled my hair, tight dress, big uncomfortable jewellery… Took over 50 shots until I got one I thought you might like, then I edited this one selfie for ages on several apps- just so I could feel some social approval from you.’ THERE IS NOTHING REAL ABOUT THIS.” The raw emotion is jarring with this photo, since it seems less likely to have a negative memory than, say, the previously mentioned bikini photo. However, there is a level of familiarity to this sentiment. I think she is speaking for a lot of social media users in this caption, because this is something I’d guess most, if not all, members of Instagram have done for at least one post. You spend so much time on one picture with the intent of impressing people you may not even know in the “real world.”
O’Neill goes on like this for the rest of her surviving Instagram posts, but this isn’t the most striking part of her announcement. She goes on to uncover a whole underground system of brands paying popular Instagrammers a great deal of money to promote their products – “$2000AUD a post EASY”. This is by no means hidden from the public knowledge, but still has flown under the radar, not noticed by many social media users. It is also not necessarily a bad thing. It can actually be a good transaction, as it is another form of advertisement for the brand, much like the way Wheaties cereal uses famous athletes, or the milk industry casting celebrities to promote the product. However, O’Neill admits her experience with the process.
“Why would you tell your followers that you’re paid a lot to promote what you promote? … Like, it’s not cool. No one thinks that’s radical, or revolutionary,” she says in her YouTube vlog “HOW PEOPLE MAKE 1000’s ON SOCIAL MEDIA.” “Yet I, myself was consumed by it. This was the reason why I quit social media for me, personally, it consumed me. I wasn’t living in a 3D world.”
This testimonial perfectly encapsulates O’Neill’s statement. This is her personal experience and taking from Instagram, and social media in general, and is doing what is right for herself coming from it. But she is not denouncing social media or claiming all people who use it are consumed. From such a young soul, this is a movement people of any age should consider; your personally poor experience with a situation does not automatically make it bad for everyone.
Essena O’Neill also didn’t make this statement and root herself from her Internet fame, however. She is simply finding a way to express her true self, without the corruption of money compromising her personal views. Letsbegamechangers.com is O’Neill’s alternative to Instagram, and does not allow for liking or following, thus removing the aspect from her periphery. On this new platform, she posts everything she is passionate about, sharing her experiences and inspirations with anyone who wants to read it. She has posts sorted into categories, such as “Gender Equality,” “Food,” “Veganism,” “Books,” and “Technology Addiction.” The content doesn’t have as much of an impact as the range between topics. Even if you don’t plan on converting to veganism anytime soon, you can find great content to relate to your own life.
On her website, she has a post, featured at the top of each page about this whole experience for her. There have been bad things to arise from her stand, but also show how the world can turn around and embrace the positives in life, without having to look always look at controversy in a negative light.
“Please, this isn’t about my personal life. those I trusted spreading rumours… this is my exact point about social media. WE MUST USE OUR VOICES FOR GOOD AND POSITIVE CHANGE. Why not talk about this movement as a concept? … Why not use this as purely an example of social media reliance. Human beings are capable of so much more than gossip, cool pictures and ironic captions. Let’s talk about real things happening globally that matter. Love the people around you … that’s all my point is.”
Her passion is clear. She was driven to make a change, and she made it happen. With change, comes controversy, which also brings negativity from unwarranted sources, but that’s just the way the world is right now. She is striving to make a change to even that system, however.
O’Neill’s friend and fellow Australian vegan Bonny Rebecca is also famous on Instagram. She claims to have been initially “confused” with O’Neill’s actions, since Rebecca’s life with social media has been “very positive.” She released a statement on Tumblr, as a comment to one of her followers, explaining the difference between the two women.
“Obviously, it’s super hard for me because Essena has put out all this information about what SOME instagramers are like, then left social media and of course I have been left with everyone comparing us and thinking that she is implying those concepts are relevant to my account. And man that is not fair, because that’s NEVER what I have been about.”
So in this case, it’s easy to see the negative impact O’Neill’s statements could have on other social media users’ lives. Both women are completely right with their statements. O’Neill had a lighter intention in mind, but her statements may have also come across as too broad, where other Instagrammers haven’t been totally consumed by the culture.
Rebecca doesn’t stop there, though, and remains supportive of her friend. She wrote a caption on a picture of the two apparently having a great time, smiling together, expressing her love and support.
“Ahh this photo makes me smile,” she begins. “…at first I may have been confused I now understand more than ever why this is the right choice for you! … So many people strive to be ‘popular’ online to validate themselves, manipulating photos and captions … When NONE of that truly matters and that’s what can be wrong with social media! Essena is exposing that … She will still be creating awesome content for you guys on her new website.. And I CANT WAIT!”
This is the way Essena O’Neill argues people should respond in order to induce positive change. Rebecca clearly won’t be giving up her social media, and has a self-proclaimedly good experience using the websites. Yet she is still able to support her friend and help promote her new direction in life. There is a lot to be taken from this situation, but you can definitely see how these two young women are creating an environment for positive change in the world.
No one is asking you to stop using social media. But Essena O’Neill is definitely asking you to at least look at your life; really see how social media affects you. Maybe you’ll come to a life-changing juncture in your life like O’Neill herself, but you just as easily might decide your social media life has a positive, or even neutral, impact on your life. Either outcome is fine, but you cannot deny the bravery O’Neill showed in stepping forward and sharing her story, in the hopes of inspiring people everywhere. Her new website serves the same purpose, and also allows her to share what she is passionate about, in a non-validation-fueled environment.
Photos courtesy of @essenaoneill