Unless you've been living under a blissful rock this week, you've no doubt heard or read about Australian YouTube and Instagram personality Essena O'neill and her VERY PUBLIC departure from social media, along with claims from her friends that it's all a hoax.
If you're anything like me, you had no idea who Essena even was until this all blew up - and it seems that you and I are not the only ones. The number of people following her Instagram account has exploded since she made the announcement that Social Media is a lie, before detailing some of what went into creating her images or the appearance of a perfect life.
While I'm all for an honest conversation about what goes on behind the scenes (or, you know the actual work) to create images, I was not in a hurry to join the many, many thousands of women now clamouring to praise Essena's decision - let alone the things she has said about her experiences as an online personality, or her plans going forward.
Let's just be clear, there is plenty of fakery and bullshit online. From the fashion industry, to animal rescue groups and discussions around veganism, to healthy living advocacy, and all the way into the personal development industry. Online marketing through "authentic story telling" is a POWERFUL way to connect with people - especially if the people you want to 'target' are aspirational women who long to see real life examples of others achieving the kind of success they dream of for themselves. It gives many people hope and at the same time, it can create enormous pressure for others.
Social Media isn't the reason things have gone awry here. The mainstream media have been feeding us exactly the same crap for decades. It's just that now everyone has a platform to project from, and if you happen to have an interest in fashion and sharing your style, and fit a certain demographic, then of course brands will see this as a brilliant opportunity. Of course they're going to start sending you free stuff and pay you peanuts to advertise their products to your audience because it's like a dream come true from a marketing perspective!
I have NO issue with Social Media personalities or brands who do this by the way.
But I DO have issues with women undervaluing themselves or their work.
I have issues with people pretending to be genuinely interested in, and promoting things just because they're getting paid to, and not declaring that they're being paid for it.
This is super lazy advertising, and it's why people lost faith in celebrity endorsements: they reek of lies.
Colour me Cynical, but what I'm really tired of seeing - and I was actually just in a conversation on Periscope about this earlier today, is having a social media newsfeed ESPECIALLY in Facebook Groups, which feels like an endless stream of advertising.
Now, to be honest, I share selfies across platforms with my thoughts for the specific purpose of talking about Real Self Care and I share about my birthmark with the clear intention of encouraging parents to really consider how they feel about treating birthmarks as a medical condition - we ALL have our reasons for sharing our stories in particular ways, and we all do it to some extent.
As someone who has made most of my closest adult friends as a result of being active, open and honest in online spaces like Facebook Groups. I find this disconnection and hiding behind walls really sad. I crave reading peoples stories just as much as I long to share my own. There's nothing quite like being a part of a community where people are willing to feel safe, be vulnerable and reach out to one another when they need some support, help, or understanding. Actually, I think that might be what this is all about - our human desire to understand and to be understood. For me, reading what seems like someones beautiful and honest story, only to discover at the end that it's a fucking marketing pitch and seeing so many people utilise this as a strategy, is making me feel a little jaded.
So far as Essena goes, I would have loved to see her own her decision to use Social Media in the way that she did, rather than just say that Social Media is a lie. I think that part of the issue here is that once we get to a point where so many people have subscribed to our feeds, it's easy to get caught up in ego and to view those people as a homogenous audience. Once that happens, I feel that we've missed the point entirely.
Social Media is successful because of our desire to connect and actually socialise with real people - not just be broadcasted to, or talked at like we have been through most forms of traditional mainstream media.
Ultimately what I think this all comes down to, is the role of setting boundaries around our work, and understanding our limits. Last week, Lady Gaga spoke out about how quickly not having boundaries killed her enthusiasm for working in the music industry. It wasn't that she suddenly hated music or claimed that it was all a lie, just that she recognised that things had gone too far. She cared so much, that she overcommitted to others, and committed to projects which didn't truly excite or serve her. Gaga didn't make that video to spit in the face of the industry or her fans, nor did she do it to promote her latest thing. She made the video to share a message she believed needs to be heard.
Genuine and wholehearted story telling is crucial to our understanding of the world, and our ability to connect with one another.
Pulling back the curtains and looking behind the scenes every now and then, is healthy.
Regardless of the shitstorm that's blown up over this, or any of our thoughts about Essena's intentions, I think there are a few really important messages that we can ALL learn (or stand to be reminded of) here.
- Always remember that people are only ever showing you what THEY want you to see.
- We should only ever share or promote things that we would genuinely recommend to our friends or family if we weren't getting paid or recognised for doing so. Share with honesty and integrity.
- Protect yourself by establishing boundaries around how much of yourself you're willing to give.
- Own your decisions.
By all means, we are ALL going to make fuck ups every so often, it's how we grow and learn. We're all going to change our minds many, many times over and that's okay. What matters though, is that we own our decisions. Humility and Humiliation are very different things, and while I don't agree with or support the vitriolic hatred being directed at Essena, I do believe that we all need to experience a little of each every so often.
I think that this whole story is an example of why critical introspection and reflection is important. Until we're ready to really consider and totally own the responsibility we have in any situation, then we're likely to continue repeating the same old patterns over and over again.