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Essena O’Neill quits social media, only to become more famous

By Veronica ZabczynskiNovember 19, 2015

Essena O'Neill
Essena O'Neill YouTube

Essena O’Neill is a gorgeous 19-year-old social media star from Australia who recently did what Kim Kardashian attempted when she posed for Paper Magazine. O’Neill broke the Internet, or at least, cracked the façade of the Internet. 

A few weeks ago, O’Neill, an online celebrity with over 500,000 followers on Instagram, decided to leave social media, declaring that it is not real life. She re-captioned photos on her Instagram (her account has since been made private), telling the reality behind the photos instead of the perfected version of fantasy that the photos captured. The pictures displayed a young, beautiful girl full of life, but were captioned with “NOT REAL LIFE” followed by:

  • "Was paid $400 to post a dress that I wouldn’t wear otherwise.”
  • “The only thing that made me feel good that day was this photo. How deeply depressing.”
  • “This is what I like to call a perfectly contrived candid shot. Nothing candid about this. While yes going for a morning jog and ocean swim before school was fun, I felt the strong desire to pose with my thighs just apart #thighgap boobs pushed up #vsdoublepaddingtop and face away because obviously my body’s my most likable asset. Like this photo for my efforts to convince you that I’m really really hot #celebrityconstruct”

She makes a good point. There is a celebrity construct that persists on the Internet and most definitely on Instagram. If you have nice things to take pictures of, you will have a lot of followers. Instagram is a social media platform that is all about aesthetics without much emphasis on intelligence or depth.

Since quitting, O’Neill has released several videos detailing her thoughts on social media, and the lengths that she went to in order to gain validation. Some of these videos have been viewed nearly a million times (making her, ironically, an even bigger social media star). O’Neill’s message resonates with her age group — the first generation to grow up on social media.

Shortly after she quit social media, O’Neill received praise for her position, but there was definitely a backlash as well. O’Neill’s disdain for the platform that made her famous has rubbed some people the wrong way. Others see hypocrisy in her rising stardom. 

Zach James, CEO of a company that helps clients raise their social media following (who has obvious reasons to oppose O’Neill’s message), took to Facebook to sound off about it. His status ended with: “Essena O'Neill needs to find real help instead of redirecting personal responsibility towards mankind's greatest communication tool. I truly hope you do, because social media isn't a lie, you were the lie.”

And other have piled on. O’Neill’s friends, sisters Nina and Randa Nelson, who are also social media stars, came forward to say that her quitting social media is a hoax, brought on by a break up.

The Essena O’Neill controversy has been covered by most major websites. The part that no one seems to be talking about is, well, why are we even talking about this? The controversy surrounding the subject is juicy for sure, but what this boils down to is a teenage girl having a breakthrough, or possibly a breakdown. Either way, isn’t it odd that major websites are writing posts about it? 

This narrative will be attached to Essena O’Neill for the rest of her life. She will be defined by her 19-year-old self. If you think back to opinions you held when you were 19, you’ve probably changed your mind about a few things. But your opinions weren’t broadcast around the world. Feeling bad about the spotlight on Essena O’Neill’s declarations against social media seems odd considering she put herself out there, but that’s what social media loving teenagers do nowadays. They are part of a society that has taught them that one shouldn’t even sip the latte they purchased before first posting a photo of it. 

In the course of growing up, most teenagers have breakdowns and breakthroughs, but theirs are usually much less public. I fear we are approaching a world where nobody can have a private breakdown anymore, and a person’s worst moments remain indelible. 

There should be a certain privacy in which teenagers can blossom into adults, but social media has taken it away from them. Until now, growing up was done in private; teenagers were largely left alone to become adults. Social media, for all it has given us as a platform for expression, has also robbed adolescents of an easy anonymity.