This is old news by now, but does the name Essena O’Neill ring a bell? No? In case you missed out on her video that went viral last November, I’ll give you a semi-quick rundown on the seventeen minute video. You can also check out her video here.
Amidst tears, O’Neill draws attention to how “fake” she believes the social media world has become and how unaware the average viewer is to what really goes on behind the beautiful, yet highly unrealistic images viewers see on a daily basis. She claims her departure from this impractical world should serve as a wake up call for all her followers.
She tearfully continues on with her video (sans makeup) arguing “culture creates validation and insecurities” and later begs viewers and social media personalities to create content that isn’t based on “views, likes, or followers”. Furthermore, she launches a tirade against the business behind sponsored or paid social and posts, a current hot topic for those interested in law (and more particularly, fashion law). This topic has recently forced one of our independent federal agencies, the Federal Trade Commission, to pay more attention to how they can protect consumers on social media in the future*. More on this below, but back to O’Neill’s video for now.
While watching this young Australian’s video, I found it shocking to think someone could blame many of their insecurities on apps that pubescent Silicon Valley geeks dreamt of in their parents’ basements (I’m only half sarcastic, here). Could social media really be blamed for this young woman’s unhappiness?
This brings me to my question for you today: does quitting social media remedy the true nature of our unhappiness? Is this truly going to help fix negative feelings you have toward yourself?
O’Neill believed this was the answer. Soon after posting her self-declared “last Youtube video”, she proceeded to delete all her social media sites save for one, Instagram, but only after deleting two thousand photos off her account. Keeping a few select pictures, she quickly gave new captions to those that remained with newer, brutally honest captions:
She later deleted her Instagram account as well.
After she made these changes, O’Neill said she hoped to start a movement where the average viewer could realize their self worth isn’t determined by their physical attributes or social media influence. Just because O’Neill thought she wasted many years living a lie didn’t mean others should as well.
This being said, there’s many varying opinions on whether social media serves an overall good purpose or not. We see lovers connect, celebrities make millions, and teens cyberbully others all within seconds of a simple flick of the thumb. It’s simultaneously amazing, yet terrifying.
Personally, I admit I’m no stranger to unhappiness which I can partially attribute to social media, and on a deeper level, my deep rooted desire to be perfect. I can definitely admit I’ve felt validated after reaching a new high of “likes” or “views” on social media platforms, while also feeling crushed when a new profile picture doesn’t get as many likes as I would’ve thought. Was I not thin enough? Had I not marketed my post effectively? Should I feel embarrassed to post a selfie? As my Pop Culture professor so wisely said, “I receive likes, therefore I exist”. Any “like” I’ve received has given me validation. Though I know this ultimately to be false, it’s hard to continually remind myself of this over and over again. I’m sure many others would agree.
In saying this, I realize I’m part of the problem I’ve created for myself. I’ve spent HOURS clicking through photos, scrolling down my home feed, and stalking girls I don’t know, obsessing how I’m not as pretty, thin, or worry free and happy as they seem. How can I realistically think another person’s life is trouble free based on photos they are able to manipulate? All my own photos are edited, retouched, and manipulated to catch me in both the best lighting and during the most flattering “picture perfect moments”. How is fair to assume their photos haven’t been as well?
I seem to get the most likes on the most perfect photos of myself and my behavior seems to continue to snowball into what could resemble a highly predictable lab experiment as a result. People like following people who look happy and pretty. It’s inspirational. I accumulate likes, therefore I am. More happy photos, more likes. More likes, more happiness. It’s a vicious negative feedback loop we’ve created for ourselves.
So should I abandon my Facebook, multiple Twitter accounts, Snapchat, and Instagram in search of this ever elusive happiness I’ve been chasing for a large portion of my life? I’ve tried. For a couple months I wasn’t on Facebook, I didn’t enjoy Snapchat until a year after it became popular, and quit using my beloved Twitter because I didn’t think I could handle the responsibility. We’ve all had friends who express their distaste at the world of social media and delete accounts only to reinstate their profiles some odd months or weeks later.
So does unplugging our lives make us happier in the end?
I’m not so sure. I’m not so sure we’ll ever know the answer, or whether there even is a “right” answer (don’t get me started on existentialist theories). Finding happiness may or may not be as simple as deleting your accounts if you’re disconsolate. Quite simply, this is a discussion up for debate and it’s a highly personal and contested matter. I understand deleting accounts out of inactivity, but deleting based on lack of self esteem?
Though there’s no simple solution to this complex problem, I firmly believe we have the power to be part of the solution, not the problem as social media users. I think it’s time to stop viewing social media as an untamable beast, because we have the opportunity to control what we post and what we view to an extent. We have small opportunities to put a positive spin on what we see every day!
Armed with this positivity, I decided to do my own experiment on Instagram a few months ago. I posted a close up photo of my face, one half with makeup and editing, the other without any makeup or retouching. The response I received was more than I could’ve ever asked for. It was my most popular post since joining Instagram five years ago, and still would’ve been considered it my top post even if it had gotten no likes. It’s possible to use social media for good purposes to outweigh the bad. It felt like I was holding up my middle finger to all the negative feelings that haunted me from this picture perfect image of myself that I had wanted to be.
So even though I’ve dragged you through a lengthy post just to give you no solid answer to the question of whether quitting social media remedies the true nature of our unhappiness, I hope this makes you think. Maybe the question shouldn’t lie in whether social media can make us unhappy or not, but instead on how we can participate in this world with more realistic expectations of ourselves. Yes, bloggers will edit their photos. Many girls will airbrush their skin to perfection, and others will show off expensive meals, new makeup and cars or share lengthy posts of their vacations to Ibiza on Snapchat. This all is inevitable, especially given social is a huuuge, untapped resource for anyone who’d like to market to millennials (at the very least!). I wouldn’t be shocked at all to see many brands add or increase both organic and paid social within the next few years. My only hope is that we all get a little more educated and that the Federal Trade Commission is able to keep up and catch unlawful practices**. However, it’s up to us to get stronger.
Long story short, when Essena O’Neill decided to post her last YouTube video last November, she set off a firestorm of response from her peers and viewers. The question of whether social media serves a positive or negative purpose is too difficult a question to give one finite answer to. For some, quitting social media may help reduce feelings of inadequateness, decrease their maladaptive pleasure seeking impulses, and potential depression. As O’Neill showed, even those who seem at the top on social media platforms can suffer behind closed doors. Their lives and paychecks revolve around likes, views, and shares. But our lives don’t have to.
I’ve felt both positively validated and negatively impacted through what others and myself have posted. The answer we seek may not lie with whether our happiness is a direct result of social media, but instead, whether we’re able to control the intake of information through educating ourselves and constant reminders that this world has the aptitude to seem airbrushed and perfect. I’m going to challenge myself to view the social world as less of an intimidating place, but as a burgeoning market for retailers and promoters. I’m also going to vow to constantly remind myself there’s more to life than a “bikini ready” beach bod or nailing that perfect cat eye. Both are great, yes, but remember that you alone are enough. You breath, you love, you are loved, therefore you are!
Please don’t hesitate to comment and reach out, whether you agree or disagree with me. Let’s keep the discussion going!
*As many of you know, influencers and bloggers are paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to wear, drink, or promote a company’s merchandise, often ignoring the rules the FTC lays down to protect consumers from what they determine to be “unfair, deceptive or fraudulent practices in the marketplace” (per their site’s “What We Do” section). For more information on the FTC, I encourage you to visit their site!
**One of my favorite fashion law bloggers continues to call out popular bloggers (L’Oreal’s 15 L’Orealista bloggers, the Man Repeller, amongst many other offenders) for not appropriately disclosing paid posts. Putting #sp in the description part of photos is no longer enough. The Fashion Law’s founder and editor-in-chief explains this all much better than I ever could. Find her explorations of calling out bloggers here.