Despite what former Instagram star and anti-social media advocate Essena O’Neil had to say in her video about why she’s quitting Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube, social media isn’t inherently evil.
Emphasis on inherently.
Okay, so by now we’re all aware of O’Neil’s brutal deconstruction of how social media turns us into people who obsess over numbers for validation, right? After deleting thousands of her photos and editing the remaining ones with the truth behind them–photo sessions that took ages because she wanted her stomach to look good, undisclosed sponsored posts, general misery behind a glamorous selfie–O’Neil made a video dishing out the truth behind her photos and the perils of Instagram fame.
Initially, I was taken aback and took some time to do some serious self-reflection. Damn, I also have a tendency to regularly check on the amount of likes I’ve received. How many times have I been late to something because I’ve been trying to take the perfect selfie? How ridiculous do I look when I’m trying to choose between two different VSCO Cam filters for half an hour? How much do I yearn to have the life of some of these carefree Insta girls I follow, with their messy hair and high waist jeans, the ability to look cool without even trying?
Who the hell am I really? What do I value? What am I getting out of this social media wormhole?
But after checking out some other critiques of O’Neil’s actions and really figuring out my position on all of this, I’ve come to the conclusion that social media isn’t exactly the ultimate arbiter of disingenuousness and moral decay that people think it is.
I respect O’Neil’s decision to get the hell out of the social media game. It was clearly compromising her mental health and body image. She was miserable, and it must have been crappy for her to have her young life built on what she saw as lies and manipulation. I also thought she was 100 percent right about how gross it is that there are people paid to promote products on Instagram, but aren’t being upfront it; everyone should know whether or not they’re looking at an advertisement or not, that’s just effing ethics.
We also can’t ignore the science that explains a lot of O’Neil’s claims: Studies show that positive feedback in the form of likes and comments on social media triggers the “reward center” of the brain. Some researchers have gone so far as to compare this need for all that positive reinforcement to addiction. But when I watched O’Neil’s video, while I was deeply moved, I couldn’t help but to be turned off by some of her critiques of social media.
O’Neil’s implication that we need to all get some fresh air, talk to real people, and stop being influenced by what we see on social media is fair, but only to an extent. For example, let’s tackle the bit about talking to real people. We’re at a point now in which, frankly, we’re aware that the people we communicate with via social media are actual people, not internet entities. I figured this out years ago as a teenager when I was on the now largely defunct journaling site, LiveJournal. Some of the people who I talked to about everything from Harry Potter to indie music are people I still consider friends today. Hell, I’ve met several of them IRL. I’ve done the same thing through sites like Tumblr, Instagram, and Twitter. These are real people to me, people who I can share my experiences with, laugh with, rage with…sure, I can theoretically get to that point with somebody I meet at the park, but I’m not here for people diminishing the important of online connections.
This is especially true when it comes to marginalized people. Listen, we can all agree that we’re inundated with the idea that being white, thin, straight, and conventionally attractive is a beauty standard, right? Well, that was pretty much all that most of us had to really look up to or encounter in magazines, television, movies, etc. But now? Sure, a lot of those standards still thrive via social media. Frankly, as a thin, blonde haired white woman, O’Neil and her popularity are perfect examples of it in action. But the fact that there’s also a space for plus-size bodies to present themselves as people of value and beauty is important. The fact that I can find awesome women of color–people who actually look like me–is important. The fact that trans people can get love on these platforms that they cannot get IRL is really effing important. Sure, there can be a level of shallowness in this, too, but maybe that’s not the end of the world?
I also want to note the importance that social media has when it comes to building awareness of different social issues–war, police brutality, cultural appropriation, sexism, transphobia, mental illness, etc–in a way that just couldn’t be done before. Not to toot my own horn, but I regularly receive Tumblr messages I get from girls who tell me that my posts about race have totally changed the way they see the world. How’s that for positive change?
The fact that there are spaces where people can talk about depression without feeling like freaks matters. The fact that there are corners of the internet where Muslim girls can talk about how to style hijabs is awesome. The fact that people start hashtags inspired by victims of police brutality that would otherwise get ignored by the mainstream media and actually forces the media to acknowledge these victims is powerful af. Are we really going to act as if social media is just about wanting more likes on a selfie?
Of course, there is a level of toxicity in the social media realm that can’t be ignored. Abuse, harassment, trolling, shaming, idolizing, self-destruction…it’s all there and easier than ever. But it’s also not new. Social media didn’t create body image issues or assholes who have fun being racist trolls. But O’Neil encouraging people to go outside and meet people comes across as condescending to people who have made and sustained friendships via social media.
Saying that someone is shallow for wanting to post an image of themselves looking (and hopefully feeling) like a hottie feels a little out of touch when I bubble with pride as I see fellow brown skinned women using #flexinmycomplexion hashtag. And criticizing people for building their brand on alleged fakeness somehow seems to fall on the shoulders of girls and women on social media way more than dudes (hm, wonder why); it’s so unfair.
Again, O’Neil did what she felt she had to do, and good for her. But I think that we should cool it with the accusations that our generation is full of shallow, brain dead people attached to their phones. So go take a selfie if you want to. Pose, pick your favorite filter, and post it. Ain’t nothin’ wrong with feelin’ yourself, just make sure you maintain some perspective along the way.
What did you think of O’Neil’s analysis of social media? Do you think social media does more harm or good? Tell us in the comments!