The Internet is what you make it

And it’s not always a smooth ride.

A teenage Instagrammer called Essena O’Neill has quit social media and the Internet is intrigued. She’s frantically deleted 2,000 strategically placed images on her Instagram feed and about to erase all content hosted on her viral YouTube channel. Her overnight success is now in overnight shutdown mode.

Her situation of making thousands of dollars from her social media following is not relatable to most, but the fact that she’s been knee-deep in “social media culture” since she was twelve is. She’s a huge blogger in Australia, with 500k fans on Instagram, and getting nearly a million views per video on YouTube. She’s one of the more aspirational vloggers, admired for her health and looks, often posting pictures of her gorgeous, toned stomach, showing her viewers why she’s gone vegan and thousands of people are interested in What She Eats In A Day.

But now Essena has flipped, feels dirty and is purging her social media channels and life of the fake icky stuff.

Unsurprisingly, everyone has an opinion on this.

A part of me just feels deeply sorry for her. I count my lucky stars that I didn’t grow up in a world of endless communication when I was a teenager. I had a Nokia brick and had 10 free texts a week. And I tell you what, I would pick those texts wisely. I would not waste my texts, they were precious to me, especially I couldn’t afford to top up my Pay-As-You-Go card.

Now, though, anyone and everyone can send a WhatsApp, a Snapchat, a Vine, a iMessage, an email, a Facebook message, a Twitter DM, an Instagram comment or a FaceTime. We’re in such a self-publishing, freedom-to-communicate world right now that we can start blogs and write on places like Medium and reach people instantly. Self-made YouTuber numbers rival the circulation numbers of Vogue. We are constantly available. We are in a golden-age. Anyone can be famous. Sure: the world is our Oyster.

But that’s not the issue here. Since when was freedom of speech a bad thing? But the human emotion behind selling ourselves as commodities is. It’s the fact that in order to feel like a worthy human-being (especially in a teenager’s mind) you must feel validated. That validation used to come from old-fashioned means back when I was a teenager: getting invited to the “cool” party, getting winked at by a boy; someone politely asking if they could sit next to you in class; getting picked out at the school dance. Now, I’ve read teens say that those little highs come from a boy “liking” an old selfie of yours. It’s called “Deep Liking” — nothing more flattering than scrolling way back through someone’s timeline, apparently.

Imagining myself as a teen having to get more “Likes” than the next person, gives me the eeby jeebies. Teenagers wanting to be “vloggers” is concerning. Not because there aren’t aspiring people doing wonderful things (there are, lots of YouTubers really are worthy of the “role model” title) but because the teenagers are mostly aspiring to the big following, not the creative outputs behind the success. In recent survey teens said they wanted to be a blogger because “bloggers are admired by others” and “bloggers get sent free products and invites to prestigious events”. That, to me, suggests they want the validation of the followers more than anything else.

The Internet is an incredible place to share your interests. If you love writing, be a blogger. If you love fashion, take photos of your clothes. If you love performing, grab a camera. If you love music, upload it straight to YouTube. If you want to illustrate, share it on Tumblr. The list goes on. But, remember the art. Remember the craft. Remember the reason why.

So I understand Essena’s public breakdown. She’s got caught up in the dark side of it all. Lost sight of the art she wanted to make, and the person she wanted to be.

This is a conversation we need to be having.

I’m a millenial, I’m not “old”, I’m 26 years old, but I grew up and found my feet before social media kicked off. I love posting a selfie but mainly because it’ll be my Dad or mates who “Like” it. There’s no pressure. Equally I’m not in a situation where thousands of strangers liking my photo pays my bills.

However — we all know it is possible to be authentic on social media. There is nothing wrong with branded content. Artists need to be paid. But I do believe this authenticity comes from exactly that: creating meaningful art. A blog post that uncovers your true feelings; a photo that tells a story; a helpful recipe; a truthful review, an honest opinion on something. You owe it your audience to make it count, and make it real.

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.

It is not healthy to rate people like they are an item on Amazon. The number of people following your life does not define who you are. You are more than social media, more than your job, more than your followers.

And this isn’t a time to get defensive.

Her story isn’t about you. She’s not saying that your selfies are fake. She’s not saying everyone on Instagram is a phoney. She’s not saying you can’t do what you want.

She’s simply saying that as a teenager, growing up in a world of Likes, Ticks, Stars, Views, Subscribers, Comments, Followers and Fans — she has lost her way in the world.

And I don’t blame her.

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Thoughts on Media is a community publication on Medium, curated by ReadThisThing.