Tearing down the face of social media and staring at the truth

If you have been following me on Instagram, you would know that I spent the last week on an Instagram fast because of an internet explosion courtesy of Instagram celebrity Essena O’Neill.

Who is Essena O’Neill?

Essena O’Neill, who was already popular to began with over half a million followers on Instagram, became a viral internet sensation after she allegedly quit all social media platforms and called out nearly every social media user for being hypocritical and fake, pretending to lead perfect lives and shamelessly whoring their Instagram out for sponsorship and money. She deleted majority of her photos and left only a few photos on her Instagram with edited captions to show exactly how fake everything on Instagram was. The captions were an attempt to be brutally honest, but really seemed to insult people who followed her as being shallow and stupid for soaking everything she writes on Instagram.

She blames Instagram for helping to perpetuate a culture where people seek validation in numbers – from likes to followers. It’s an endless, infinite pursuit to feel affirmed when more people like your photo, she argues. In essence, she blames Instagram for anchoring her self-esteem and self-worth to numbers.

She then ends her 17 minute video (where she bewilderingly weeps for a good portion of it) with a call for everyone to quit Instagram and get on board her new campaign – Let’s Be Game Changers. She rallies everyone to be as inspiring as her – to wake up every day, hungry for change. Then, after the entire tirade against people who use Instagram for money, she asks for donation in order to support her lifestyle because she just lost her Instagram income. Say what?

Ya you’re hungry for change alright. The change in people’s pocket.

Why am I writing this post?

The trend of people hating on social media has been going on long before this entire Essena saga. Instagram parody accounts like @socalitybarbie and @brosbeingbasic which garnered millions of followers for their shockingly accurate jab at #authentic Instagrammers are just the tip of the iceberg. Articles like this sought to “expose” the truth behind Instagram photos, as if all Instagrammers in the world were conspiring to deceive the world at large with beautiful photos, gorgeous candid shots and stunning #iwokeuplikethis bed hair.

For a while it felt like everyone was hating Instagram and everything it represents. No one seemed to be speaking out for the Instagram community. So a few months back, I started to mull over the idea of penning down a post to talk about what I felt was an irrational, over-inclusive generalization of the Instagram community as superficial hypocrites who wanted to fake their way through life by lying to everyone about how perfect their lives were. And in the midst of trying to streamline my thoughts into words, I lost the fire in me to continue because there was a momentary dearth of Instagram-shaming on the Internet for a while.

Cue Essena. The moment she quit her Instagram and released that video of hers, it flooded my Facebook. My twitter. My Instagram. Everyone was sharing her article, and along with it, tagging friends of theirs in their Facebook caption to shame them. This ranged from a blatant “This is SOOO you” to “I know someone like this. You know who you are.”

That got me all riled up again, and this time I thought I would make it a point to state my piece and shut all the haters up with a more nuanced perspective rather than a carte blanche approach to social media hating. But first, I decided that I should at least try out that inane one week fast from Instagram just to prove that I could do it. So I deleted my Instagram app.

How did the week without Instagram feel?

I’m making a point to be honest about how it felt to not have Instagram for a week. No doubt, I had an objective in mind to disprove everything that Essena alleged in that heinous video of hers so there might have been some bias on my part. But I still tried my best to remain neutral and honest with the experience.

1. I realised that I accessed Instagram way more often than I thought I did

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Here’s a photo of my home page, where I pin all my frequently accessed apps. Notice that hole? That’s where Instagram used to be.

For the first 2 days at least, I found myself subconsciously tapping that empty part of the screen and waiting for Instagram to pop open. I access Instagram so often that it had become habitual to click that space at least once every time I pick up my phone. This revelation was certainly enlightening. I’ve had friends point out to me about my Instagram addiction before, and while I’m sure it was said in jest, there isn’t smoke without fire.

So that much I admit – I have an Instagram addiction, so much so that my mind operates in auto-pilot and I instinctively reach for the app even when it is not there.

2. Life was a lot more boring

If Instagram was a habit that I succumbed to every time I pick up my phone, imagine how much free time I had now that I didn’t have hundreds of pictures to scroll through at any given time.

Not only that, but one of my favourite past times is to edit a photo using the countless photo editing apps on my phone and imagine how it would look like on Instagram.

But because I no longer had Instagram, I became very aware of how much free time I had. Now here’s the part where people would say – now that you have the free time, you can do something fruitful like read a book, or engage in a meaningful conversation with someone.

That didn’t happen. And it’s simply because spending time on Instagram or social media for that matter isn’t an exclusive activity I do at the sacrifice of other things. Even when I had Instagram, I still go out for meals with friends. I still pick up my favourite book to browse. Sometimes, I join my sisters on the couch for TV. It’s not as if I barricaded myself in my room and stared at my phone 24/7.

3. It was less stressful to know that I didn’t have to make my life photogenic

It’s strange, and I’m sure that other Instagrammers can attest and identify with this – I’ve always felt this compulsion to post one photo a day on Instagram. At least one. So sometimes when there isn’t anything to post, I will deliberately create content to do so. This is where my flatlays come in.

Hence, when I didn’t have Instagram, there was no pressure per se for me to find content to post. The same extended to the fear of having an awesome outfit go to waste simply because it wasn’t photographed. I was no longer concerned with needing to have a photo taken just so that I could put it up on Instagram. In that sense, you could say that I felt more carefree. But only to a slight extent.

4. My battery life and data usage was amazing

10 days into November and I’ve only used 700mb. And my phone battery can actually last a day and a half without Instagram.

Can someone say wow.

Concluding feelings?

Suffice to say, the fast wasn’t “transformational”. It was illuminating in certain aspects, such as revealing to me exactly how “addicted” I was to Instagram. But to say that I felt liberated, or that I can finally live a life that is worth living, or that I lived a real life uninhibited by the pressures of social media is clearly an over-exaggeration.

And so, during the week, I was already collecting my thoughts about what I felt about Essena’s blanket criticism of Instagram, and I was ready to launch a full out defense for Instagrammers out there who never had such a bad experience as Essena described. But lo and behold (and thankfully I might add), unlike previous occasions where everyone took the opportunity to chastise Instagrammers, people started speaking out to criticize Essena and to call her out on her hypocrisy. And boy, was the backlash harsh. It was proportionate, but harsh.

Here are two of my favourites :

  1.  Her LA friends’ response to her video – http://www.cosmopolitan.com/lifestyle/news/a48797/essena-oneill-friends-nina-randa-call-her-out/
  2. Zach James – You were the Lie, not Social Media – http://www.cosmopolitan.com/lifestyle/news/a48781/ceo-calls-out-essena-oneill-on-facebook

So, being comforted by the fact that not everyone is buying into Essena’s sob story, I’m going to add to the repetoire of backlash with some of my own comments.

1. DON’T GO FINDING TRUTH ON INSTAGRAM 

Get this in your head. Everyone on Instagram is privy to this fact, and it’s about time that you should be to. Even if Instagram began as a way to document moments in life, it has surely morphed into something completely different now.

Instagram is now an artistic expression. It is a specially curated platform with carefully chosen photos to elicit a certain response from the viewer.

Look at these photos.

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Did you think that I ever expected my followers to believe that this is my real bed situation when I’m studying? Or my bed is really that photogenic on a lazy Sunday afternoon? No! It should be painfully obvious to everyone that these photos are deliberately assembled and constructed. It is a display. It is created. And you know what? I’m proud of it. It’s a skill to make something photogenic. To understand how colours blend in a photo. To use props to convey a certain message, or feeling. It’s a skill that is honed through experience.

Does any Instagrammer who does flatlays like this actively seek to deceive you into believing that this is their “real life”? I believe I speak for a majority, if not all Instagrammers when I say no. We don’t.

So if there are any allegations of deceit or hypocrisy, it’s only because you expect everything on Instagram to be real when clearly, everyone playing the Instagram game is acutely aware that it is no longer so.

Or how about this “out of bed look”?

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Fact : Unless my hair is somehow able to defy the laws of nature, there is no way one can wake up with a hair as tame as the one in this photo.

I’m not saying that absolutely nothing on Instagram is real or true. For example, there are many instances where an Instagrammer is sponsored a product and he/she genuinely believes in the product.

Or when someone uploads a photo of them posing at the beach with a caption to illustrate how zen they feel right now, or how calming the sea is etc etc. They might really be feeling all zen-like and lulled into a meditative state. Just because they posed for a photo doesn’t discount the truth in the statement. There is nothing wrong with wanting to put your best face forward on social media.

I’m saying that when it comes to assessing whether something is real or not, you should take a measured approach. Not everyone is on Instagram to deceive.And sometimes, whether something is true or not, real or fake is inconsequential. Just appreciate the photo for what it is, and move on. What’s the point of debating whether it is real or staged?

So it’s time to tailor your expectations. Don’t go expecting an Instagram feed that documents life as it truly is. Be a discerning viewer.

2. JUST BECAUSE ONE PUTS IN EFFORT FOR AN INSTAGRAM PHOTO, DOES NOT MEAN THAT EFFORT SHOULD BE TRIVIALISED

Let it be known from the very outset : I am not ashamed of how much effort I put into my Instagram photos. This ranges from the time and thought that I put into an individual photo, to carefully curating my feed so that there appears to be a consistent theme throughout.

Essena talked about how she could take 100 photos of the same pose and the same outfit before she gets the right photo. She laments about the ridiculous amount of effort and time people put into their Instagram photos.

It is a common expression for someone to exclaim “Wa, an Instagram photo only, so much effort ah.” This would then usually follow with a declaration that “I will never be able to bring myself to put in so much effort for an Instagram photo.”

And you know what? That is fine. I’m not expecting everyone to be able to dedicate the same amount of time and effort that hardcore Instagrammers do when it comes to their photos, but I certainly expect people to appreciate that the effort that goes into making a great Instagram photo is not one that should be trivialized or shamed.

Take this photo for example.

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In order for me to take this photo, I had to dig up my old Christmas tree fairy lights which were buried deep in my storeroom. I then had to clean it because it was incredibly dusty, and then figure a way to hang it on my curtain making sure that each column gets a proportionate length of light. This is followed up by the laborious activity of setting up the tripod and using the remote control to take the photo – all done in the wee hours of the night at 3am.

Or how about this photo, the set up of which took some creative thinking before I could shoot it in my room?

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Do I consider it time wasted? No. Am I appalled at how much effort it took to take this photo? No. I enjoyed the process immensely.

What makes an Instagram photo so different from a photo taken by a professional photographer on set? Is it simply because professional photographers are paid? Or that their effort and time has a purpose to it?

What makes a model’s effort in going for a photoshoot and spending hours on different poses and in different settings any different from an Instagrammer taking an OOTD? Is it just because she is legitimately modeling for a brand and therefore it constitutes a job where she gets money for the effort she puts in?

Is the effort that goes into the taking of a photo only justified when you are paid? Or when you are a professional? Why can’t it simply be for the sheer enjoyment of the process? Of looking at your work and being proud of it?

Or are you simply baffled at how someone had no self-awareness to know that he/she is not a model, but yet “shamelessly” continues to behave like one? And in such a situation, can you not just unfollow the person if it makes you so uncomfortable?

We criticize what we don’t understand. But people who don’t understand Instagrammers somehow place themselves on a high horse willing themselves to believe that they are above all these superficial means of validation and affirmation.

3. SEEKING VALIDATION THROUGH NUMBERS IS WHAT MAKES US HUMAN

Amongst other things, Essena calls for social media to no longer be judged by numbers, but by the quality of the content. She spat on the likes/follows system of Instagram, blaming Instagram for sucking her into the numbers game where she constantly chased for likes and followers in order to feel important.

Here’s where I think you really have to read Zach James’ response to Essena. It was brilliant. He succinctly and in astounding brevity, exposed the huge flaw in Essena’s argument. Instagram wasn’t the problem. She was. You can’t blame a social media platform for making you obsessed with affirmation. That’s purely your own doing. You failed to separate virtual validation with real life and in turn allowed your life to be dictated by numbers. That’s just you.

I’m not above the numbers game. Clearly, I love the idea of having many followers, and many likes on my photos. But that is what motivates me to produce quality content. If my picture is grainy, out of focus, or just plain dull, I won’t upload it. In other words I saw likes as a quality sieve. And is using numbers to motivate one to be more conscious about the quality of what he is uploading, really a bad thing? How can it be? It’s what you make of it.

At the end of the day, you are the one in control. And if you lose control, blame it on yourself. Don’t shift the blame to something else.

And to my second point : Is it really feasible to live in a world without numbers?

Short answer, no.

Numbers mean something. It is impossible to envisage a world without numbers. Essena says that it is unhealthy for someone to be obsessed with numbers, to constantly have to pander to the public’s opinion of what’s good and what’s not which will lead to a slow erosion of your personal identity. This, I agree. But the converse is not a plausible alternative as well.

Just imagine a person who lives his life in absolutely disregard of the public’s opinion. He feels affirmed and validated simply because he has a high self-esteem and is confident about who is as a person. He doesn’t need others to validate him.

Does that not sound like someone in need of a reality check? Self-obsessed individual with an inflated assessment of how good he really is. How can it be possible that that sounds ideal? It is absolutely not.

We must strike a balance. Like it or not, the world is like a huge popularity contest and the measure of success is usually determined by how it resonates with people. The kind of personality or behaviour that is acceptable is also regulated by the public’s opinion. The kind of food, design, phone, interior decoration, restaurant settings – these are regulated by the public’s opinion. Sure, they are interwoven with objective standards but if these standards are objective, they will be shared by the majority and therefore the majority will affirm it.  You cannot live your life by disregarding the opinions of others. That in itself is alienating.

Find the middle ground. Learn how to both accept that while numbers reflect popularity, they don’t reflect everything. Learn to develop a healthy attitude towards internalizing the public’s opinion. Build a self-esteem that strikes a good balance between public acceptance and the self-assurance in your capabilities and strengths. One cannot survive in isolation of the other. Both extremes are undesirable.


Instagram is just a platform. It’s what you make of it that determines the kind of social media user you are.

For me, I love Instagram. I love that it gave me the platform for me to indulge in my creative side, for me to experiment with photography and “modeling”. For connecting me with like-minded individuals. For showing me that there are beautiful things all around us, and it’s only a matter of perspective. For allowing me to live vicariously through the lives of the rich and famous. For humanizing celebrities by giving us a peak into their daily lives. For keeping me updated with the latest trends.

Everything I listed above can be turned into a negative as long as I adopt an unhealthy approach to Instagram. I respect Essena for taking the bold step in acknowledging that Instagram has had a negative impact on her life. For someone of her status to give up everything that she knew was hard. And it should be commended. But my admiration and respect dissipated when she decided to drag the whole Instagram community down with her by generalizing every single Instagrammer as another version of her. I felt attacked by her words and therefore felt the need to take a stand for myself, and by extension, every other Instagrammer that is just like me.

If you like Instagram, wonderful. We are like-minded. But if you don’t like it, do it for the right reasons. It could simply be because it is not in you to enjoy looking at flat lays or OOTDs, or beautiful landscapes and travel photos. You may simply be a person that doesn’t find visuals appealing. That’s all fine. But don’t hate Instagram because of a ill-conceived stereotype that it is a community of superficial people trying to make their lives more interesting than it really is, just so that people can be jealous of them.

And don’t hate Instagram because you don’t understand it. One man’s junk is another man’s treasure. To you, it may just be a collection of photos. But to us, it represents our creativity and dedication to our “craft”.

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