Unless you've been living under a rock, you can't have missed model/Instagram star Essena O'Neill declaring that she was quitting social media and revealing the truth behind her perfectly posed, carefully edited photos.
I wrote an Editor's Letter on Vilda a month or so ago, talking about this very subject: how we edit our lives online to look more interesting, more glamorous, more fun. Or, as I do, just post the beautiful bits - that are doubtlessly real, but they're not the whole story.
As one of my favourite bloggers, Emma Gannon, said, I feel lucky to have grown up without social media. I can't imagine what it must be like to have your teenage insecurities broadcast to 600k followers, and mask your true self to conform to something that society has decided for you. Essena is in no way the only teenage girl who got addicted to likes and followers: with her clothes, body and diet constantly scrutinised, it's only natural that she came to attribute her entire self-worth to those numbers. In her new, more realistic captions on her Instagram photos, Essena reveals the truth behind some of them: not eating for an entire day, sucking her stomach in for 50 photos just to get the one that would get the most likes, wearing clothes that she didn't choose or pay for, just because that was how she made her money. It's a bit sad (but true to her decision, I guess) that she's now deleted her entire Instagram account - it would be great for other Instagrammers to see what really goes into a photo with thousands of likes.
Essena's move has been critiqued as her new venture involves a website where she posts videos talking about these issues - and asks viewers for money. While in fact this last bit doesn't ring genuine with me, I still think the questions Essena brings up make for a conversation worth having. Through my eight years (yep, eight years!) as a blogger, I've met so many girls who wish to do this professionally and endlessly envy the few who can. I've never aspired to that: making your living from blogging would mean using your face, name and identity to sell products. Sometimes those would be products you genuinely love and feel excited about promoting. Other times - because we all need to pay the bills - those would be products that you'd push just to make money. You wouldn't necessarily dislike them, but you wouldn't feel passionate about them either. And while many people's 9-to-5 jobs consist in promoting something they might not be wildly passionate about, it's different when your promotional instrument is your own self and person. I'm happy for this blog to be just a personal diary and a passion project, because I don't want to become a catalogue.
Social media isn't 'evil' or the enemy. Every time I read one of those 'I quit Facebook and feel soooo much better' stories, it irks me because you're blaming social media for your own issues, things that you can solve by changing your way of thinking - there's no need to quit Facebook and on its own it won't change anything without the necessary shift in mindset (more on what I think about this here). But it's crucial to have a conversation about how we use social media and what we value - do we value excellent writing, beautiful photos, unique styling, creative art, or do we just give value to numbers? Validating yourself based on how many people liked your selfie is harmful and very sad.
Essena's story is hers and hers alone, and in the wake of her dramatic quit, lots of bloggers and Instagrammers have piped up about how much they love social media. I agree with them, I deeply love this little space I've carved out for myself on the www, but I also understand the harm that can come with treating social media like a numbers game. Let's use it to connect, share and relate instead. Let's step out of the manufactured story and tell a real one.
See this thought-provoking TED talk by one of the most inspiring people on Instagram, Rachel Brathen:
Photo by David Camilli