The recent social media stir (or as some websites like to call it, “winning the Internet” for about 28 minutes) has been Instagram star Essena O’Neill slamming shut her life on all social networks, while starting a new website called, where she’s focused on non-commercial issues even as she’s inviting people to donate to her so she can afford rent.

O’Neill, at the height of popularity (i.e. 3 days ago) had 612,000 followers on Instagram, 250,000 or so on Youtube. She’d made money off brands advertising their products on and around her, a method of advertising that has numerous terms we coin around it – “native advertising”, “product placement”, et cetera.

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Essena O’Neill, in various Instagram images that were posed

In a massive outburst, she proclaimed that social media had done nothing except made her miserable, and she detailed in numerous photo captions the work that went behind creating each apparently insta-perfect photo. Instagram is not so instant, it seems.

Is social media real?
O’Neill’s sudden turnabout has brought to point one question, something that perhaps us Gen-Xers have known for some time: How much time do you actually spend preening yourself for social media perfection? How posed are those #ootd photos? What’s the purpose of it all? What’s the meaning of social media, of Instagram? What’s the meaning of life?

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Social media is simply a tool. Like any tool, it can be abused, or used suitably. Look at agencies like the UN, or individual civilian reporters who employ Twitter or Facebook or Instagram, et cetera for real-time reportage of events happening around the world. Or those who use it for social activism. People who are inventing stuff, or those who dream of brighter futures but may never have the opportunity to see it because of poverty, until someone sees their portfolio on a social media platform. Families and friends who are separated by distance, who can now keep in contact with each other. The ability to share (or overshare) what’s going on in your life. These are all great things that happen online.

But it also gives rise to a wonderful trait in people, one of the seven great sins called vanity. Our smartphone front cameras are the new mirrors, as Alber Elbaz points out, and mirrors reflect only the superficial. And make no mistake, we are all great appreciators of beautiful aesthetics. So beautiful exteriors become far more emphasised on social media.

The new reality television
It’s essentially that, what social media is. It appeals to the nosy in us, the “I wonder what my neighbour is doing right now” syndrome, only your neighbour has just put it all up on a network for you to see. But just like scenes from any reality show, you only see the edited bits, not the filming process, the takes and re-takes.

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This is the true social media star of our generation: Grumpy Cat

The thing about reality television is, it’s not really reality. Things are contrived. And that’s what social media can be: contrived. I’m used to seeing a team of people from a magazine that shall remain unnamed, in the side building of our offices taking #ootd photos of themselves, sometimes with products, against this concrete wall for social media. One holds up a light, another poses, another styles, and one other takes the photo. It looks great on social media. But what none of you realise is that the side building is actually a dumpster. Does that change your opinion of the photo? Perhaps, or not. Extrapolating beyond the photo is important.

The thing is, many of the influencers you see on social media can be a little irresponsible, and welcome the horde of attention and sudden wealth they see online without any effort whatsoever. In legacy media, be it print, television, radio, et cetera, we are constantly reminded that there is separation between work and life, and also of the ethics of a professional opinion and how to distinguish between what’s an honest opinion and what’s something driven by commercial interests.

The problem with social media is that the lines are removed. Your life is your work. It’s easy to fall into the trap of superficiality. I don’t blame O’Neill for how she became obsessed with that aspect of her life. She didn’t know better. The issue is partly with the lack of regulation on the platform, and the lack of responsible reporting on influencers’ side. Her shrugging off and slamming the platform for her slide into an attention-seeking personality, however, she should accept responsiblity for. It’s one thing to decide to end one aspect of your life and to reject it completely. But if you’ve taken money for what constituted as work for you, it’s inappropriate to turn around and slam it all as farcical. That’s just further shrugging off responsibility.

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When taking selfies is your life, it can get a little self-absorbed.

The term is familiar to people who work in the technology and coding world. What You See Is What You Get. Not so true on social media. For those of us who can distinguish between a reality and what’s not, that’s fine. But social media reaches out to everyone, including those who don’t always have the ability to judge what’s soft advertising and what’s reality. Kids, adults who don’t know better. The list goes on. This same issue took place at the time of blogger explosion, and back then in the U.S, it was dictated that bloggers would have to expressly indicate if they had been gifted items for reviews, or if there were any affliations with companies in any way. Perhaps that’s what’s needed. Will it prevent more O’Neills? I doubt it. But it will at least offer a more informed opinion to the masses, and maybe reveal how much of social media is advertising, and how much is voluntarily driven, both by legacy media such as ours, as well as new media influencers. We’ll gladly start this change, the only question is, will others follow? Will you, reader, push others to follow? Or are you just gonna passively hit the “Like” button and blithely carry on?

P.S. This article is strictly the opinion of editor Darren Ho (Instagram: @darrenho, Twitter: @DarrenJYHo) who continues to shameless self-promote himself to readers of the magazine and followers. He does, however, pay for what he photographs. 

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