I struggled with this post. When every website and their mother (on Facebook) are covering a story, jumping on the bandwagon feels like clickbaiting. I had a lot of feelings about the whole thing that I wanted to share, but I didn’t want to sound like a jerk. Ultimately, I don’t know what this girl’s going through. But I had something to say. And y’all wanted to hear it, apparently.
Essena O’Neil is a content creator, primarily on Instagram, who you probably had never heard of before her video and new website went viral on Monday. I hadn’t, as her audience skews younger and I’m more of a casual user of Instagram (Instagrammer? IDK, I’m old). A few days ago, Essena decided to quit social media and move all her content to a new site, letsbegamechangers.com. For years, she sought validation through likes and followers. Her posts were perfectly curated to show her “living her best life” when she was really struggling. She posted pictures in dresses for thousands of dollars that never made her feel quite right.
I’ve spent most of my life comparing myself to my peers. In middle school, I thought the girls who looked great in Soffee shorts and played multiple sports and were actually able to straighten their hair had perfect lives. I felt inadequate in high school because I knew I’d never get into an Ivy League school. Even now I compare myself to people with better jobs, apartments, and more frequent flier miles. Instagram was invented after I graduated from high school and started to figure myself out. I can’t even imagine going through most of my childhood with the giant magnifying glass of social media.
There’s a huge lack of guidance on social media available to teens. Platforms grow and change so quickly that it’s difficult for even huge corporations to create best practices. People tend to take very polarizing stances on social media, particularly when it comes to young users. It’s a fun way for people to keep in touch with each other and share their lives with the world, yet we’re quick to damn it. It’s hard to find rational opinions in a sea of voices.
Essena’s Instagram account now reads “Social Media Is Not Real Life.” This is inarguably true. What you see of someone’s life on YouTube or Instagram or wherever is a curation of their life, the best parts of themselves. When you don’t see someone outside of a little box on a little screen, it’s hard to imagine them complexly. This isn’t that far removed from middle school me imagining the perfect lives of the girls in the Soffee shorts. I didn’t see them at home. I didn’t know what they were going through. I couldn’t imagine them crying on the floor because they felt like they looked hideous in every piece of clothing they owned. In this case, I think that Essena is doing something special for her young audience.
When you’re a content creator, you constantly have to reevaluate your goals. What am I trying to say with this blog post? Will this video help someone? Why am I sharing this photo? I will often catch myself considering a post that I know will get lots of traffic, but ultimately serves no purpose. Clearly, that’s why I felt weird about this very post. I felt like I needed to get my feelings on the virtual page, though, despite my lack of eloquence. It meant something to me.
Emma Gannon put it pretty damn well with this quote from her Medium article:
Social media is not to blame here. It’s up to us not to treat it like a game. Treating it like a numbers game will only end in tears. Chasing clicks will leave us hollow. Creating meaningful content that people enjoy will make the difference. Social media can be fantastic if we keep it fucking real.
I don’t think teenagers are dumb. They astonish me with the things they create and the influence they wield. But when you’re at an age where social validation is such a huge part of your existence, chasing clicks seems natural. Will it lead to brand deals/recognition/whatever the teens want these days? Sure, but it might feel icky after a while.
Make things for yourself. The views might follow, they might not. Just do what feels right.
Here are some people who had some more eloquent thoughts on this than I did: