Why Essena O'Neill is causing a storm

This week Instagram and general social media power house Essena O'Neill dramatically closed her social media accounts and proclaiming that "SOCIAL MEDIA IS NOT REAL". Her scathing attack, aimed at both social media culture and her own profile, was reported widely. Publications decided to either hail Essena as a revolutionary, others were far more cynical - claiming that it was a hoax and a way to drive the success of her other business. 

I have my own opinion, but so, it seems, does every other individual on the internet. The story has been moving fast, with many other social media influencers weighing in. So, instead of joining them I've decided to break down what actually has happened in what has been a fast moving and heated saga. 

Who is Essena O'Neill?

Essena O'Neill is a 19 year old from Australia who rose to prominence on Instagram, posting about fashion, selfies, adventures, #fitspo photos and more. She amassed half a million followers on Instagram (on top of 200,000 followers on YouTube and Tumblr and 60,000 on her Snapchat.

What has she done?

A couple of days ago O'Neill began changing a number of her photo captions, seemingly attempting to show the reality behind the photos posted on her Instagram account. For example, on one photo of her wearing a formal dress, she wrote: "NOT REAL LIFE - I didn't pay for the dress, took countless photos to look hot for Instagram, the formal made me feel incredibly alone."

In another she commented that she had been paid to promote tanning products and then stating that "there is more to life than looking 'hot'". 

O'Neill then started deleting vast numbers of her photos before, on Wednesday essentially activating a social media blackout. All her channels, including her most prominent - Instagram - were closed. The only exception is Vimeo, which she is still using to share her thoughts and messages. 

According to Mashable, before this move O'Neill "had more than 600,000 followers on Instagram, 260,000 subscribers on YouTube, a large Snapchat following and a Tumblr account. She made a living from native advertising through her posts, getting free clothes and products from brands in exchange for looking pretty and influencing her followers."


What were her motives?

This is the question that has caused the debate. There are two main drastically different takes on Essena's motives - one honest, one not so much:

1) Essena's explanation

O'Neill has released a few videos explaining her views and her actions. In them she states that she's tired of pretending to be someone else, and instead wanted to be spreading messages of self worth. This was timed with the launch of her new website: Let's Be Gamechangers

O'Neill said that she thought that social media (ironically using social media to get this message out) and that she wanted to move beyond validation, likes, favourites and statistics (again, slightly ironically she then went on to discuss how many views she'd had on her website).

2) A publicity stunt

These contradictions have proved easy prey for critics. O'Neill's blog aims to "deconstruct social media and its manipulative practices". These strong values have been where she has received most criticism: again, using social media to speak out against social media.

Another contradiction was around her claim about wanting to go "off the grid" - particularly given the dramatic nature of her change, and the way she has been touring various media outlets. 

Finally, she has also pleaded with fans to donate money to her directly, as she claims without brands sponsoring her she can no longer pay her rent.

These three areas have left her vulnerable - with some believing that this suggests she is using the move as a large publicity stunt. Some have claimed that she is being a smart businessperson

The most direct and prominent has come from two YouTubers Nina and Randa - who felt that some of O'Neill's comments were directly aimed at them. For background, O'Neill stayed with when she went to Los Angeles on a vacation earlier this year - and refers to it in her video. Nina and Randa did a video in response, pulling apart and criticising individual segments of her video.

3) Something more serious

Of course, it's important to remember that Essena isn't even 20 years old. She has had to deal with a tremendous amount of pressure and very unusual circumstances. Sadly, it's been suggested that Essena might be going through a bit of a breakdown, and the extremely strong distressed responses and her irrational behaviour are a symptom of this. If this is the case, there doesn't need a driven motive, or a hidden stunt - instead this would unfortunately be a public cry for help. 

Needless to say, many of the messages that O'Neill is sharing are admirable, positive and valuable to many young people around the world. It's true that we should admire qualities beyond superficial looks and attraction, and certainly not live a life through comparisons with others. But, to an extent, that's not really the point, the media (and much of the public) want to know why she did it. It's unlikely we'll know the true reasons for this outburst for some time, but given the media appetite for such a story it seems we're probably going to reading about it for a while to come.