Examining Essena

by Justin Lim (16A01B)

I was not struck with the same sense of wonder at Essena O’Neill’s resignation from Instagram after a brave declaration that involved a spectacular overhaul of her posts to reveal the ugly truth behind them, and her and many other critics’ disturbingly quick dismissal of social media as a platform for interaction or business. If anything, I was left wondering what exactly felt off about the new consensus that “social media is harmful” or that there were set means and ways of using social media “healthily”.

Just one of the radical changes to O'Neill's Instagram. It has since been deleted.

Just one of the radical changes to O’Neill’s Instagram. It has since been deleted.

It’s easy for us to pin the blame on social media: as a relatively new and quickly evolving concept, no one can precisely pin down its true capability or potential — making it so much easier to see it as dangerous or damaging. But it seems juvenile and impractical to immediately condemn the use of social media as a one-way ticket to the same ordeal O’Neill had faced. If anything, we ought to turn the spotlight to social media users rather than to simply find fault in social media; additionally, what exactly can we establish about social media to even find fault in it in the first place?

So what sort of social media user was O’Neill? Did her social media career start at the cajoling of a friend? What was her first endorsement like? These questions aren’t important. What is important is to find similarities between O’Neill’s and our experience with social media.

From a more philosophical standpoint, humans are all social creatures: that is, we all desire some sort of social connection. We wish for someone to relate to us, to validate our opinion, or to share our burdens with— all of which to very varying degrees. Traditionally, we would rely on face-to-face communication to fulfil this desire: such communication is interactive, but also tedious to prepare for— even conversations on the telephone had once required several re-wirings and arrangements for a short conversation.

With the birth of traditional media like newspapers and television, we could now fulfil our desire with greater immediacy, albeit at the loss of the interactive element in the process. In projecting our lives and personalities onto characters, we fulfil our social desire for mutual understanding; in observing works of fantasy, we create new aspirations which subsequently spurs on the formation of a community in the form of a fanbase, or stimulates the human imagination to prompt more creations that would fuel the media industry.

Social media fulfils all five aspects we have seen in earlier media for communication: the interactive element of face-to-face conversation; the immediacy, the sense of community forged, and the reflexive nature of traditional media; and the feeling of being understood that underlies all attempts at communication. As O’Neill, or any of us even, posts on her Instagram, she can expect immediate validation in the form of likes, responses in their comments, and the sense of community in her following; as more users follow in her footsteps, social media as an industry can only grow as well. But while her experience with Instagram had been toxic, her current website fulfils these exact same criteria: her videos receive praise from her new following and other new media journalists, she inspires her followers to create similar content, and she still manages to earn a living by egging her followers to donate funds to sustain her website.

This suggests that at its core, the nature of social media remains the same, so social media in itself cannot be “harmful” or “evil”. Also, the desire for social connections is also something completely natural for us: we are all justified in our use of social media as a means for communication. No one purpose should then be contended against the other as more “healthy” or “reasonable” as these qualifiers are ultimately subjective for each user (this will be explored later). With this knowledge, we can safely assure ourselves that it is not wrong to use social media, or rather that there is no meaningful or harmful notice to start our use of social media.

We're not a brainwashed generation, we simply have access to different platforms and resources.

We’re not a brainwashed generation, we simply have access to different platforms and resources.

So what exactly made O’Neill’s experience with social media a harmful one? Was it the new profit motive? Or did she get too absorbed in trying to achieve impossible beauty standards? There is no real answer to this, as our use of social media is entirely subjective. Take these two cases for example: Our first user, John, has accounts on all major platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. He abstains from posting, and simply uses the platforms to catch up with her friends or find out more about their lives. Our second user, Amelia, owns five Instagram accounts and at least one account in every other platform imaginable. Amelia has huge following on her main account, and is the face of multiple online brands. Social media for her has turned into a platform for business: she earns her living wages here, she doctors her photos to earn more likes and subsequently demands greater fees for endorsements. Is Amelia’s use of social media necessarily more unhealthy than John’s?

We can never know the answer to that. But if Amelia is able to make a living from social media as how O’Neill had been, while John only becomes envious or depressed as he witnessed the success of all her friends on social media — that’s when we can begin to cast doubt over John’s use of social media. Similarly, only if Amelia experiences a huge loss in self confidence after doctoring a thousand photos on her Instagram, that’s when experts or even laymen like us can identify their use of social media as harmful or unhealthy. The takeaway here is that there’s no one, definitively harmful way of using social media. Our experiences can only be characterised as unhealthy when they begin to harm us or the people around us from our use of social media.

Having said that, how can we minimise or even eradicate “harmful uses of social media”? The answer shouldn’t be one of absolute statements: no, social media itself isn’t definitively harmful; neither is one person’s negative experience with social media going to translate itself to be an absolutely unhealthy one for others: what O’Neill had found intolerable remains a profitable and manageable way of life for many other professional bloggers. Then, what we possibly can safely say is that users need greater self awareness over how their online presence might be influencing themselves or the people around them. Dangers to our health or sanity only turn serious when we allow ourselves to lose sight of our levels and subsequently what we hold important to us; similarly, we can only help ourselves if we have a clearer understanding of where and how our use of social media might’ve causing trouble for us.

Unfortunately, there is no hard-and-fast way to do so. But prescribing certain models of “healthy social media use” and discouraging others from using social media as a means of escape or communication that would be considered “obsessive” or “unhealthy” is not the right way to start— especially since social media itself isn’t malicious in nature. We need all social media users, not just youths, to start by observing how social media shapes their life, to then seek third opinions, and to reach a conclusion for themselves. Our perception of and experience with social media is vastly different than Essena O’Neill’s. Likewise, her story is in no way the one answer to healthy social media use for us all.

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