Will Vimeo finally make ‘Insta-famous’ Essena O’Neill authentic?

Sunday, November 8, 2015 - 6:10pm

First, a picture: Tall and blond, tan skin framed in a backless white dress, hands scrunching perfect beach hair. She’s laughing — her profile crinkling — while her toes, curled on the edge of a dock, point out to the shimmery water.

We, the Instagram stalkers, soak it in, and try to replicate it. We change out of sweats and into season-appropriate casual wear (i.e. what we weren’t casually wearing before), find an inspiring (yet still natural) backdrop for our spontaneous adventure. We copy the angle of the camera, capturing our own curved silhouettes and side-grins; we hook a finger strategically behind our ear, taming an imaginary lock of hair. We wait until dusk for the perfect light and the “prime time” to post on Instagram (roughly 7 to 9 p.m., according to my 18-year-old sister). We laugh 100 times. We get super annoyed that we still don’t look candid enough.

And we wish our lives were as cool as Essena O’Neill’s. 

Over the past four years, O’Neill, a 19-year-old from the Sunshine Coast of Australia, has become a social media celebrity — followed by half a million on Instagram, nearly 250,000 on her YouTube channel. On her IMG modeling profile, O’Neill claims to be “committed to inspiring young women to love their bodies and to make good lifestyle choices.” Her Instagram feed proves it: she laughs on the beach, makes açai breakfast bowls, unwinds with yoga. On YouTube, she reveals beauty tips and vegan recipes, giving followers insight to her perfectly zen, perfectly candid life in the sun.

So when O’Neill changed her Instagram name to “Social Media Is Not Real Life” last week, the Internet blew up. Without warning, she re-captioned her photos — the ones hundreds of thousands of us had pinned as “goals” — to tell the real story behind them. For the photo of her in the backless white dress, she wrote: “NOT REAL LIFE — I didn’t pay for the dress, took countless photos trying to look hot for Instagram, the formal made me feel incredibly alone.” She revealed the advertising deals made covertly, writing on another, “Was paid $400 to post a dress.” She said that with her number of followers, online brands now pay up to $2,000 per Instagram.

Promotional photos aside, the real shock was the intention behind O’Neill’s personal pictures. Because when there wasn’t a brand — just a natural, laughing picture of O’Neill — we felt connected, like we were in on her secret. But what social media users don’t see (or choose to ignore) is what’s really being sold: not a brand, but the Instagrammer (or blogger, YouTuber, etc.) herself.

O’Neill uncovered pictures of herself on the beach, writing, “Nothing is candid.” On another: “A 15-year-old that calorie restricts and excessively exercises is not goals” — a message that’s dangerously ignored by masses of “fitspiration” boards and blogs.

Consumed by numbers — views, likes, followers — O’Neill deleted her Instagram and YouTube, calling it quits on her “perfect life” as we knew it. She opened a Vimeo account, where she recently posted a 12-minute video on “Why I think social media sucks,” in which she demands of future social media: “Would someone please make something that isn’t based on views, likes and followers?”

She continues on the video, “If I had no likes or follows, I thought I meant nothing.” But (as we all know) feeling validation from likes or views isn’t anything new; O’Neill firmly states that she doesn’t blame social media itself for her unhappiness, but rather her own addiction to it. Her aim for Vimeo is to post three videos a week, sharing her thoughts on social media, body image and what it means to live a (real) healthy lifestyle, free from comments or approval from YouTube.

Since the fallout, O’Neill has posted three more videos to her site. Despite her youth, despite how trivial the topic of social media seems, they watch strangely like a documentary: a behind-the-scenes look at a fallen celebrity. O’Neill is giddy and aspirational, inviting us all to be “game changers” by talking about ideas instead of Instagrams, reading books instead of counting likes. She promotes a movement for authenticity: “Go outside, go to a park, go to a beach, go somewhere there are people around you.”

She ends solemnly, “You don’t have to appreciate what I’m doing, but I hope it feels somewhat real ... What I’m doing here is a statement that real life isn’t through screens.”

It’s a sweet sentiment, but there’s something not quite right about it. Though her makeup is gone, her hair stuffed in a bun, O’Neill is still blinking up from a screen. An unsettling question remains: Didn’t her Instagram feel somewhat real to us as well?