A nearly 20-minute-long video of a teenage girl mid-emotional breakdown about how social media has ruined her life went viral this week, after she posted it on YouTube for her 200,000 followers to watch despondently.
Parents snatched their pre-adolescents’ smartphones as social media addiction experts fueled the panic.
Essena O’Neill, a 19-year-old Australian model and now-former social media celebrity, announced that she was “quitting Instagram, YouTube and Tumblr” after realizing that her self-worth was entirely dependent on likes and clicks.
She’d squandered her teenage years “being addicted to social media, social approval, and my physical appearance.” Her voice dissolved into sobs and shook in anger, her eyes wide and desperate like someone in withdrawal. If this was a performance, it was rather compelling.
O’Neill delivered the same message to her half a million Instagram followers, purging her account of more than 2,000 pouty selfies, bikini pictures, and glam shots and retitling it, “Social Media Is Not Real Life.”
She has kept a handful of posed photos but re-captioned them to reflect “real life.” The washboard abs, flawless complexion, and beach curls were all a choreographed illusion, kids—“contrived images and edited clips ranked against each other,” as O’Neill put it in a recent post.
Now she claims she’s giving everything up (“I had it all and I was miserable,” she croaked on YouTube). But she isn’t disappearing quietly. In fact, she isn’t disappearing at all.
Having renounced her superficial persona and rebranded herself as an anti-social media activist, O’Neill urged people to follow her on a new website: LetsBeGameChangers, where she posts videos of herself on Vimeo, unfiltered and makeup-free, assuring viewers that they are “so much more than a hot Instapic” and shrugging off the deluge of media attention (“There are so many individuals that deserve headlines more than me!”). Visitors to the website can also “support” O’Neill’s nascent movement. (“Pay what it’s worth to you,” she writes.)
Among the movement’s goals are to “spread new age messages of conscious living, addition (sic) to technology, conversations on transparency online, minimise the celebrity culture, promote veganism, plant based nutrition, environmental awareness, social issues, gender equality, controversial art…”—O’Neill’s very own GOOP.
Indeed, there is something inauthentic about O’Neill’s new, “real” life, which—much like the world she left behind—she’s constructed and manipulated to reflect a certain image.
It’s a clever tactic embraced by celebrities and supermodels like Gwyneth Paltrow and Cara Delevingne, who use social media as a soapbox. It allows them to be their own publicists and have more control over their celebrity narratives than traditional celebrities who have to interact with the pesky outside world to maximize their fame.
Of course, social media stars who make money off their fandom are micromanaged by agencies and the brands they partner with. But they’ve carefully crafted their personas from Day One, and storified them on the Web.
Social media stars like O’Neill are the latest incarnation of celebrity’s evolution. She, like the reality stars that clutter our TV schedules, is living out her own soap opera. She’s no different from the Real Housewife who acts vaingloriously and then renounces her superficiality; the Hollywood star who ditches acting for activism, à la Jane Fonda running off to promote peace in Vietnam. Fonda reinvented herself again as an ’80s fitness guru, summed up by writer Judith Warner as “feminism in the age of narcissism.”
Instagram stars have realized, as Fonda did years ago, their celebrity could not stay static. The only option was transformation—today that transformation is constant and wearying—and selling every stage of reinvention as a more virtuous extension of themselves.
What, then, are we to make of O’Neill’s reinvention? Is her new website any more “real” or “authentic” than the various social media accounts that she’s renounced?
“It’s possible that she’s had an epiphany and is using that platform to project her ‘real’ self, but it’s equally possible that this is just another way of staging a form of authenticity that speaks to a different demographic,” said Erin Meyers, a media scholar who writes about our cultural obsession with celebrity “authenticity” in her book, Dishing Dirt in The Digital Age.
Robert Thompson, a trustee professor of pop culture at Syracuse University, is equally skeptical of the motivation behind “denouncing a medium, then using that same medium to reinvent and rebrand themselves.”
But he does not dismiss O’Neill’s reinvention as “categorically inauthentic. She may be repurposing her original fakeness for publicity, or she may be genuinely trying to move our consciousnesses,” he said.
Tellingly, O’Neill has held on to her identity as a role model, only instead of being a role model for young women striving to be fit and fashionable—an ambassador for the superficial—she’s a virtuous role model for social change and self-confidence.
In an apposite soap operatic twist, two of O’Neill’s alleged friends—twin sister musicians and self-described “social media influencers”—have released photos of themselves with O’Neill along with their own rambling video slamming her transformation as a publicity stunt.
The only thing missing from this auspicious reality TV pilot is b-roll footage of O’Neill and her musical social media influencer friends.
One of the reasons O’Neill’s announcement about quitting social media went viral is we got to see her nervous breakdown in real time.
We get the same thrill from watching any celebrity trainwreck, from Britney Spears’s head-shaving to Alec Baldwin’s Twitter temper tantrums, which have led him to delete (and ultimately reactivate) his account on several different occasions.
Iggy Azalea, the Australian pop star, has “quit” social media several times, only to reappear weeks or months later.
Rihanna swore off Instagram last year—then picked it up again six months later.
Russell Brand, the mediocre actor turned terrible author and prolific conspiracy theorist, has also taken a social media hiatus—quitting his YouTube series “The Trews,” featuring news commentary by Brand—in order “to think” and “to learn.”
Unfortunately, we can count on Brand returning before too long.
Most celebrities who have publicly, and often dramatically, announced their departure from social media have returned to the soapbox. No matter what phase of reinvention they’re in, they all want their voices heard.
It says everything about the perverse online-bubble times we live in that most of us only heard about Essena O’Neill when she announced she was quitting social media.