You Are Not Your Instagram
Rarely in 2015 is social media not a hot news topic – we scroll down our Facebook feeds to see an article promising six things we can do to get more likes on our Instagram posts immediately followed by a shock-value video highlighting everything we miss out on when we live with our faces turned down toward our phones.
But over the past week in particular, the realities (or lack thereof) of social media have been everywhere thanks to a well-known YouTube and Instagram user named Essena O’Neill. O’Neill is a 19-year-old Australian model and your high-school aged younger sister’s social media crush, with a half a million followers on Instagram and a dedicated circle in the YouTube community.
This week, you’ve probably seen her name attached to the phrase “Social Media is Not Real Life,” the headline that replaced her Instagram account title after shutting down her YouTube and all other social media accounts. O’Neill used her Instagram and new website, Let’sBeGameChangers.com, to be radically real with the public about how her self-worth became tied to the number of likes, followers and sponsors she accumulated and how deeply unhappy this left her.
Unsurprisingly, there has already been backlash tossed in O’Neill’s direction for her bold move, with detractors attacking her legitimacy because her name recognition has now paradoxically reached an all-time high on social media. They might just be missing the point.
As someone who is studying journalism and business in 2015, I am well-versed in the language of viral media. Personal branding, search engine optimization and, yes, how to write a catchy hashtag are actual lessons in my classes, more and more of which have involved being on Twitter as part of an assignment that helps me earn my degree.
This is the way we communicate with each other, buy things from each other and find out about new things going on in the world. It is a functioning part of any good business. We of that famous millennial upbringing take a glance at the dreamlike content posted by large companies on their Instagram accounts and think, “No shit, it’s not real.”
We can now take these same tools and turn our private life – our Sunday morning coffee, our sleepy late-night talks, our celebratory drinks – into a brand in itself. And that’s where it gets a little dicey.
Success involves coordinated cropping, one signature filter and a very particular aesthetic. Do you love to run marathons and also have a breakfast habit that includes a giant stack of chocolate chip pancakes? You can be either “foodporn” or “fitspo” – choose carefully and keep the other part of you to yourself, please.
When we are at the grocery store, we look for brands that we know we enjoy and trust. When we are at the mall, we look for brands whose products we know won’t fall apart in the dryer the first time we wash them (or that will – just in time for me to realize those trendy 1970’s-style flare pants are not my look).
But is there anyone who truly believes it makes sense to evaluate other people this way, that a word as cold and corporate as “brand” can be applied to a person? To try to squeeze a living, breathing and growing being into a package that can be marketed and “go viral” is to take away so much of the value of this crazy human experience.
Though it’s easy to forget, you are not a brand. You are not a corporation, a product, a breathless advertisement to be accepted or rejected. You are a whole, messy human being with good days and bad days and days where you eat healthy and days that you spend on hungover on the couch, face first in last night’s pokey stix. You are a living, breathing creature with the power to create change and art and music and ideas and many other things that cannot be encapsulated in a photo with a filter slapped on.
O’Neill’s first video after her social media awakening urges her fans, “Let’s create new cool stuff. Let’s say to each other that we’re more than a fucking number.” There’s nothing wrong with using these platforms – let’s just use them as a means to create, to share and to connect. Let’s forget the boundaries and the unspoken rules. Let’s refuse to be limited to what’s going to rack up the most of those little hearts.