Let’s All Stop Acting Like Social Media Isn’t ‘Real Life’

Former model Essena O'Neill says 'social media isn't real,' but is she right?

Over the past few days, the story of Essena O'Neill, the former model who drastically downsized her Internet footprint, has (ironically) blown up all over social media -- the very thing she's speaking out against.

Earlier this week, the 19-year-old took to YouTube and Instagram to talk about the deleterious effects social media has had on her life, while criticizing the "fake" ethos of online social networks. Before deleting her YouTube account, she uploaded a few videos explaining why she was leaving social media, in addition to editing the captions of her Instagram pictures -- even changing her account name to "Social Media Is Not Real Life."

Instagram/Essena O'Neill

Essena O'

"I've spent the majority of my teenage life being addicted to social media, social approval, social status, and my physical appearance," she wrote in a since-deleted Instagram post. "[Social media] is contrived images and edited clips ranked against each other. It's a system based on social approval, likes, validation, in views, success in followers. It's perfectly orchestrated self-absorbed judgement."

While on some level, I find it amusing that so many (on social media, lol) have praised O'Neill's admonishment of online platforms, I think there's a lot of serious stuff to unpack here. That starts with saying, or rather singing, Maria von Trapp-Style, the following: social media is real life. Social media is real life.

Perhaps O'Neill is so passionate about separating the online and ~ physical ~ world because for so long, her online presence was her business (which is far from the typical user experience). She noted this social media-business relationship in the edited captions of several of Instagram posts. "Was paid $400 dollars to post a dress," she wrote in one. "I know of many online brands (with big budgets) that pay up to $2000 per post. Nothing is wrong with accepting brand deals. I just think it should be known."

Essena O'Neill/Instagram via ELLE


O'Neill's call for transparency in this regard is well-intended. In fact, much of what she's saying is well-intended, especially her own transparency in discussing the pressures she faced to appear physically "flawless." On one picture's caption, she wrote, "I felt the strong desire to pose with my thighs just apart #thighgap boobs pushed up #vsdoublepaddingtop and face away because obviously my body is my most likable asset."

Essena O'Neill/Instagram via ELLE


Yes, O'Neill has sparked an important conversation on the nuances of this nascent industry -- that is, the mysterious world of social media modeling. It is, after all, an industry that benefits from selling (mostly) young people "detox teas" (essentially laxatives) and waist trainers (which literally shift your organs). But by making her criticisms so broad, by suggesting social media is one great, big facade, she undermines the very real online communities, actively working to make real change.

One such group, called the #SelfieArmy, seeks to uplift people through the submission of a selfie on Twitter/IG (natch), and using the hashtag. Founded in 2014 by Twitter user @princess_labia, it's a community based on celebrating many bodies and voices as opposed to the select few that mainstream media deems beautiful.

It's a glorious "f--k you" to an industry that time and again only rewards the bodies of a select few (*cough* thin, white, able-bodied *cough*) -- and it's happening on Twitter and Instagram.

On O'Neill's newly launched website called, she wrote that she wants to "promote real people promoting REAL change in society." That sounds great, but like, girl, it's 2015 -- so much "real change" stems from places like Twitter. Why downplay that?

The #BlackLivesMatter movement is intrinsically bound to the Internet, for example. After Trayvon Martin's murder in 2012, activists online used the hashtag to affirm the importance of black lives in a society that systematically oppresses them. The movement, which extends offline, has reinvigorated conversations on race in America in ways no other medium has, certainly none in the mainstream.

To some degree, I get what O'Neill's saying, but I think she's painted a picture with dangerously broad strokes. Though she didn't explicitly say it, O'Neill's problem seems to stem from her moral disagreement with marketing. I applaud her exposure of an industry that thrives on the exploitation of people, particularly young people like her. (Also, f--k detox teas and waist trainers. Don't want 'em, don't need 'em. No one does.)

But to say that social media is inherently fake? For real?

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