Call me cynical, but I am not buying ‘Instagram star’ Essena O’Neill’s rage quit from social media. She may be weeping her carefully crafted ‘this is REAL’ and ‘I’m doing it for my 12-year-old-self’ story all over her website, but she is also asking you and me to send her money now that she has to make a living like the rest of us. I would not be surprised if she has someone managing her publicity for the stunt. What a perfect way to cross over from just an Instagram and YouTube star to mainstream media: TV appearances, news stories, the works! I cannot wait for the mini-series and film deal!

Essena O’Neill was not an Instagram ‘star’; she was a model. She did what advertisers pay any model to do: turn up on location, take hundreds of photos to find the ‘perfect’ one, edit the selected photo beyond recognition, and display it with carefully crafted messages for advertising and product placement purposes.

If she chose to conduct photoshoots (i.e. to work) in lieu of spending time with friends and family, or while in the presence of friends and family, and missed those experiences as a result, this is no different from the sacrifices we all make when earning a living.

O’Neill claims to have revealed the dirty secret of social media: that most of what we see is paid product placement; however, this is no different from any media, be it television, radio, film, or podcasts. Any time a branded product appears in the public eye, you should assume someone is getting something in return.

If O’Neill sought out modelling on social media as a vehicle for attention, to stroke her fragile ego, that is not the fault of social media, but the way she approached and used it. O’Neill is a teenager in need of attention, admiration, ‘likes’ (and let us not forget cash and clothes). That she placed value on superficiality and fame to such an extent is the issue. Social media did not make her that way; it merely provided a vehicle for her to find what she valued. O’Neill’s story is something sad that people can relate to, and something she probably still needs to work on, but to point the finger at the medium and not her underlying insecurity is misguided.

The one good thing to come out of O’Neill’s publicity stunt is the photos that remain on her Instagram account with edited descriptions revealing the work done behind the scenes to create the image people see (and ‘like’). It would probably serve us well to have similar captains for all advertising, to raise awareness of media manipulation and product placement.

O’Neill’s story highlights the dangers inherent in placing value on looks, on ‘likes’, and what happens when we buy in to the image-crafting that has always been a part of mainstream advertising. O’Neill’s story simply shows the same mechanisms are at play in all media.

With this in mind, we should continue to view O’Neill’s moves with the same scepticism. O’Neill (or those behind her) undoubtedly constructed this latest episode. She has crafted and edited her message, and she is still manipulating us.

This does not preclude the possibility there is a broken little girl underneath it all, someone who needs to find healthier ways to feel valued, rather than validated, to build self-efficacy rather than self-esteem manufactured from manipulation and adoration, and I genuinely hope she receives that help.

The people I feel sorry for are the countless others who do what O’Neill has done, carefully crafting their lives for their online spectators instead of living them, but who aren’t getting paid for it.

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