We need to talk about Essena

November 12, 2015
This article was published more than 2 years ago.
Est. Reading Time: 4 minutes

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By: Sonia Leung

Last week Essena O’Neill made waves by condemning social media. The young model deleted most of the photos on her Instagram account and changed the caption of those that remained to reveal the arduous process required to create the seemingly effortless posts. While many have heralded Essena’s move as a bold statement about social media, she has drawn fire from other social media celebrities, who cast doubt on her intentions (Essena created a website/online store that is supposed to be inclusive) and defended social media. Most notably, critics argued that social media was not to blame for Essena’s predicament, rather it was her own weakness of character.

When Essena O’Neill first felt the pressures of social media she was 12 years old. Six years later, she had amassed over half a million followers on Instagram while still considered a minor.

To hold a minor to the same standards as adults similarly navigating social media for commercial purposes creates a discrepancy through unjustified isolation. Critical responses to Essena giving up social media equated social media to a sandbox where everyone plays together. In such rebuttals, the common theme likened communications technology and social media to tools — poor results would only come about if the user of such a tool fails to use it well.

There is more to this story than the relationship between technology and its user; O’Neill was a young girl who walked into a network of existing businesses benefiting from a system they put in place. The basis of the business model used by virtual ventures like Facebook and Instagram involves the engagement between the user and their platform — we become the eyes for their advertising. Regardless of how well versed she may have become in marketing techniques, O’Neill entered the industry under the universal pressures youth face to find validation among their peers, never having undertaken paid work, to be offered compensation in return for her search for approval.

In this advent of the digital era, who can honestly say they have never felt a “like” or “favourite” as something that transcends the screen? This instantaneous feeling of validation became all consuming for O’Neill, but this is not an isolated case of a user abusing their access to social media. This is symptomatic of a greater cultural ailment to seek societal approval, an idea itself that is packaged and sold particularly to susceptible youth. Like O’Neill says, “Everyone wants to feel valued and love.” This penchant for acceptance becomes maladaptive when we quantify it with “likes” on Facebook or Instagram, or when we enter into a contest against an unrealistic standard we hope to upkeep to maintain that quantification.

But who sells us these unrealistic standards? Who is behind the idea of a perfect life that O’Neill and so many other Instagram models and YouTubers strive to embody? These are questions that reinforce the importance of understanding that a system is in place entrapping people like O’Neill into thinking they are selling something when they are just another customer buying into a pre-packaged, Valencia-filtered idea of happiness. It’s a terrifyingly effective means of mass distribution, this commercialized pursuit of happiness. At some point in the case of O’Neill, her universal desire for validation and acceptance became exploited and instead of using social media as a tool, she became a tool in the toolbox of corporations — something she would not understand until it had taken an emotional toll.

Flip the coin. Clearly, O’Neill has realized the artificial nature of virtual validation — what remains unclear is how long she has known this, and whether she is being sincere in her intentions. There are few things that media loves more than a pretty face, and they include controversy and a redemption story. O’Neill has come to represent the subversion of an idea that, as a collective, we love to envy and equally love to hate. In her refusal of the “perfect life” she once lived, those half million Instagram followers and so many others can validate their suspicions around an idea they subscribed to that seemed too good to be true and reassure themselves about their own lives that might not be considered up to par.

This too, is an excellent business model, and while O’Neill entered into the industry as a child, she is now a businesswoman in her own right.

"I know you didn't come into this world just wanting to fit in and get by,” she writes. "You are reading this now because you are a game changer.” I can’t help but be cognizant of how much this sounds like a pitch when coupled with the new website she’s launched, letsbegamechangers.com. Is social awareness the next product to be sold under the pretense of authenticity with pre-determined parameters?

What O’Neill seems to be doing, consciously or unconsciously, is reinforcing a general trend of social activism reduced to a bandwagon that has too much to do with personal morality and loses sight of the issues at heart. She is repackaging self-worth with social awareness and redefining her image without unpacking her implication in the system. At the core of it, not much has changed. She was the “cool girl” selling the “cool life”. By becoming the new face of authenticity, she is still the “cool girl” selling the “cool life.”

Which narrative do you and I believe: a genuine and exploited girl exposing a corrupt industry, or a young business woman who knows that even artificial sincerity tastes sweeter after a lie? And what does that say about us?

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  • Alexandra Reilly is a third-year communications student and has been writing for the Silhouette for two years. She started her career in sports writing as a weekly volunteer and covering women's volleyball in her second year. Now she works as the assistant sports editor of the paper and hopes to one day work in sports media and broadcasting.

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