When 19-year-old model Essena O’Neill quit Instagram in early November, she did not do so quietly. Before removing herself entirely from the social media site, she deleted more than 2,000 photos and, for those that remained, she changed all the captions to reveal the truth behind the photo – whether that be the dress she was paid to promote or the 100 or more shots it took to produce a ‘candid’ image. Although she had more than half a million followers on Instagram, leaving the network made O’Neill more famous than she had ever been. And yet, in many ways, her emotionally wrought video explaining how social media had warped her sense of self is unsurprising.
What is to be expected when children are encouraged to create an internet identity at such a young age? It was hard enough navigating the awkwardness of growth spurts and hormonal fluctuations without having to consider how to present your life for all of your ‘friends’ and ‘followers’ to see. ‘I spent 12–16 wishing I could receive validation from numbers on a screen,’ O'Neill has said. ‘I spent the majority of my teenage years being self-absorbed, trying desperately to please others and to feel ‘enough’. I spent 16–19 editing myself and my life to be that beautiful, fitspo, positive, bright girl online.’ And O’Neill isn’t the only one. In the 21st century, teens have to deal with a new kind of growing pain: learning how to be a person online.
Eleven years after Facebook was launched, we are beginning to understand that we live in a reputation economy, one in which one poorly judged tweet may jeopardise our career. But we also know that our online lives are where we can weave stories about ourselves, where we can be the person we always wanted to be – with a pristine, all-white bedroom, non-dairy lattes every morning and a collection of well-looked after cacti. O’Neill and her generation must learn to balance their lived reality and their alternative online reality, and to understand that social media is not only a place for social sharing, but also where their sense of self-worth will be tested. They will have to be able to discern various conceptions of what real means, to read the spectrum between genuine and faked, and to balance the pressure to create content against the need to experience life’s less attractive moments in all their un-Instagrammable glory.
Does O’Neill’s self-staged retirement mark the start of a social media backlash? Will teens leave Instagram in droves? Probably not. Even the great teen migration from Facebook has been revealed to be a fallacy; Pew Research Center found that Facebook is still most popular among that demographic. But social media alternatives are appearing that aren’t grounded in purely narcissistic social validation for sharing. Take Lily Cole’s social network Impossible, for instance. The site is based on building community through acts of kindness, and enables people to offer help and receive thanks as a new form of social currency. Recently, photo-sharing platform Storehouse removed its follower model, which means users no longer have followers or receive likes for photos. Instead, they can choose who they send their photo albums to and do not need to worry about getting 11 hearts to feel validated.
Essena O’Neill may have removed herself from social media, but she hasn’t gone offline completely. She recently launched a website, Let’s Be Game Changers, where she posts videos (through Vimeo, where she has disabled comments) and essays intended to inspire her peers. In 2015, you may be able to escape social media, but it is near impossible to escape the allure of representing yourself online.