This continues from my earlier post on Essena O’Neill, Authenticity, and Vlog Wars.
Here are more thoughts triggered by the frenzy over Essena O’Neill’s announcement that she is quitting the industry.
I will look specifically at how the mainstream and popular press have reacted to O’Neill’s video, and the surrounding discourse of moral panics.
I wrote my PhD on Influencers’ culture and commerce. I am an anthropologist who focused on Influencers in Singapore in my PhD. If you’re interested, the abstract to my thesis, Please Subscribe! Influencers, Social Media, and the Commodification of Everyday Life is here. If you’re not a fan of words, a watered-down very early version exists as a 3MT speech here. My other posts on Influencer culture are here.
Influencers, their social media savvy, and their commodification of everyday life are of especially topical significance given their international prominence recently.
Many accounts celebrated the overwhelming success of young Influencers.
For instance, 21-year-old Australian YouTuber Troye Sivan, whose Internet fame has propelled him to star in Hollywood movies, Broadway plays, and clinch a recording contract with music label EMI Australia, was named by Time Magazine to be among the worldʼs 25 most influential teenagers of 2014.
However, other damaging reports revealed the pitfalls and shortcomings of this relatively new industry:
In December 2014, 25-year-old British YouTuber Zoe Sugg, who broke records for being the fastest-selling debut novelist, selling over 78,000 copies in a week, was exposed for having used a ghost-writer. (She wrote book two herself).
Later in April 2015, 23-year-old Australian health blogger Belle Gibson (digital estates since removed), who built a career on claims that she overcame terminal brain cancer through the wholesome food recipes and alternative therapies she was promoting, admitted that she never had the disease.
18-year-old Essena O’Neill’s story leans towards the apparently ‘dark side’ of social media and Influencer commerce, and her desire to ‘leave it all behind’. Some commentators have branded this the ‘digital detox’.
Once again, although at the peak of prominence now, this is not new.
In my ethnographic work with Influencers in Singapore, many young people have experienced similar tensions. But they’ve found savvy ways to cope with these stresses and exercise their agency everyday whether or not they choose to stay or leave.
In a display of self-reflexivity and self-parody, many of them also produce entertaining narratives as such:
Now a 25-year-old, she started in the Influencer industry at age 15, before deciding to leave after becoming a mother last year. Unlike O’Neill’s sudden announcement, ohsofickle’s exit and her announcement of departure seemed more measured and careful.
In March 2015, ohsofickle hinted that in “planning for the future” she may use social media more recreationally than proactively for her career. She mentioned that her life situation had changed since becoming a mother, and she wants to feel less pressure while continuing to use social media.
Six months later in September 2015, ohsofickle released ‘the big news‘ that she was leaving the Influencer industry (i.e. commercial social media, not social media per se) for her own and her family’s privacy. However, unlike O’Neill who claimed that her social media presence was “faked”, ohsofickle mentioned that she felt it would be difficult for her to continue her commerical social media presence while omitting/not blogging in depth about her “personal life”.
She implied that keeping her digital estates purely commercial/advertorial-oriented would make her blog “very different”, and “not really [her] style anymore”. Despite leaving the industry, she has left her digital estates in tact as an archive. In her amicable farewell, she expresses thanks to her followers, clients, and peers. She continues to use her social media as a regular user (additional private Instagram account here), post-microcelebrity.
Her thoughts on the O’Neill case are screengrabbed here:
“I feel you girl~~~ social media was a huge part of my life and this year I finally managed to wake up and not be so into it anymore and it has been pretty nice so far – enjoying real life (and occasional updates here and there). :) i used to have to worry about not having enough pictures to post and i had to post one picture EVERY DAY. Actually there’s really nothing wrong with making lotsa money from being popular online (it is easy money and good money) but it is a big problem and you need to WAKE UP when you get so obsessed and into it you forget how to enjoy life for what it really is and you constantly need approval and likes to feel valued and happy.”
Before we jump onto the media panic bandwagon that social media/technology is a bad thing and that we need to “save the young people”, let’s be clear that the discourses on the O’Neill case are actually very different and ought to be disentangled:
i.e. attack on social media per se vs attack on selfies, beauty industry, Influencer industry, youth and fame, etc.
i.e. O’Neill is quitting social media altogether vs O’Neill is quitting the social media/Influencer industry.
As of November 4th, 2015, 1200hrs GMT+8, her viral video has been taken down, and her updated Instagram account, @letsbegamechangers, seems to be set to private. However, O’Neill is now posting on her new Vimeo account.
Sponsored Disclaimer: I will never do paid posts or advertisement for ANY brands on this site or in any of my videos ever again. Everything I mention, I mention because I use it and love the product. There is NO money associated.
Shall we make this rabbit-hole a less painful exercise? Here’s a sheet for Social Media Moral Panic Bingo. Right click + Save. (And all the educators out there collectively sigh)
I catalogued the top 40 Google News searches for “Essena O’Neill” on November 4th, 2015 at 1600hrs GMT+8. After omitting replicas, I handcoded 36 news headlines.
Here are the 12 main discourses in media coverage so far. I’m sure more will develop as thinkpieces and commentaries surface in the next cycle of this media panic.
1) O’Neill has quit social media.
2) O’Neill has quit social media and is now a role-model.
3) O’Neill has exposed social media for being ‘fake’.
4) O’Neill has exposed social media for being unhealthy.
5) Selfies are harmful.
Now, moralizing selfies is something I feel very strongly about. So in the interest of time and to save everyone from future clickbait,
Popular press: Selfies are bad.
Academic press: How about no.
6) O’Neill has exposed the beauty industry.
7) O’Neill has exposed the Influencer industry.
8) O’Neill is overwhelmed by viewer support post-viral post.
9) O’Neill is struggling with new issues after quitting the Influencer industry.
10) O’Neill is actually still on social media.
11) O’Neill’s actions are allegedly a hoax.
12) O’Neill responds to ‘hoax’ accusations.
O’Neill is likely going to be branded as the poster girl for social media/technology moral panics for some time.
Even though many of us feel that ‘this too will pass’ because Internet amnesia will kick in and drama gets old fast, we need to think about how we want to respond the next time a media panic as such is served to us.
I want to push back against the dominant discourses that social media/technology is inauthentic/unhealthy/frivolous etc.
Dwelling on the micro-public actions of one 18-year-old (without taking into account nuances like her demographic, context, backstory, motivations, etc) and casting a blanket statement that WE NEED TO SAVE YOUNG PEOPLE or that YOUNG PEOPLE ARE NARCISSISTIC is
1) shallow albeit clickbaity,
2) prescriptive and not descriptive, and
3) just not productive. What is the value of another article describing how O’Neill cried through her video?
And chances are this whole cycle of media panics is just going to rinse and repeat with the next O’Neill.
Remember when we collectively panicked over the wellbeing (even posthumously) of Marilyn Monroe? Britney Spears? Amy Winehouse? Miley Cyrus? Lady Gaga? (Gasp! Why are all these women?! Now stop and think.)
If you’re an educator or someone who is interested in pushing back against media panic discourses, shall we brainstorm on some useful exercises?
1) We could think about how news stories are classified. Just looking at the URL of the sites, we see how the slug for O’Neill is filed under categories such as news, health, trending, world, female, video etc. What does this mean? How have social media posts by everyday users come to be standard front-pagers of news outlets? What does this tell us about the circulation of vernacular knowledge and construction of hegemonic discourses?
2) We could think about the implications of press lexicon. Reading news headlines and articles, we could pick out descriptives/adjectives for the ‘young woman in distress’ trope or social media/technology moral panic tropes. See Bingo sheet above. We could do the same for the visuals and screenshots that accompany these articles. A minimini example I wrote earlier on the Chapel Hill Shooting is here.
3) We could think about intersectionality. Different people use the same tool in different ways depending on their demographic, their need, their intentions, etc. We cannot simply cast out all Influencers/vloggers/Instagrammers/young people for their social media activity.
All these actors probably see themselves as operating on different ladders. Influencers like O’Neill probably see their digital estates as money-making entities.
Others like the Trans vloggers/It Gets Better vloggers/self-injury bloggers probably see their digital estates as community clusters, personal diaries, self-actualization pursuits.
Unfortunately, the temptation is for us to see difference and want to assign distinction and discipline without acknowledging diversity of use and dialogue. (I realize I am on a roll with alliteration. I am a closet poet.)
Shall we not be complicit in the moral/media panic?
This Parenting Panel on ABC is how some of us feel about social media post-O’Neill. But here are other digital media scholars, Tama Leaver and Jean Burgess, encouraging us to think about empathy and agency.
Any thoughts? Let’s chat!
News articles here:
Daily Mail 01, Daily Mail 02, Daily Mail 03, Daily Mail 04
Guardian 01, Guardian 02, Guardian 03
New York Times
News.com 01, News.com 02
Sunshine Coast Daily
Sydney Morning Herald 01, Sydney Morning Herald 02
Tech Insider 01, Tech Insider 02, Tech Insider 03
Yahoo, Yahoo UK