Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Essena O'Neill "Revolution"?

The news of her "quitting" social media has spread across the world, ironically, through the use of social media. Some are praising her for stepping out to finally confront the "evil" (she didn't exactly use the word evil, but she sure made it seem that way) that is social media while others, like me, are a little bit more to the skeptical side.

Snapshot of her recent Vimeo video, screenshot taken from AJ+

There's a problem in how the majority of us use social media today, that I won't deny. Arguments that social media highlights only the best part of our life, that everything is staged, are not new. People have been saying that for the longest time since social media started to be a big thing and people have been writing about quitting social media for the longest time.

A Huffington Post editor did it once. KevJumba with 3 million Youtube subscribers did it. Even celebrities like Zayn Malik and Miley Cyrus have given social media the boot before. I guess it was not until Essena made a big fuss about quitting did the issue blow up, perhaps partly because she's one of the first Instagram stars to do so?

Or it could just be the majority of sites see this as a great way to increase hits (because of the viral factor), hence everyone is jumping to write about it (oops, myself not excluded). The question then becomes: Will anything change? How much of an impact this revolution will have?

GAME CHANGER? Essena recently started this website that aims to bring "change"

The cynic in me says not much (one reason why is because one of the top causes she supports is veganism, but that's another story). After the story dies down, replaced by another sensational story, most of us (save some of her loyal and converted fans) will most probably go back to our old lives. One that is filled with social media, sadly.

Two reasons for this: Her campaign is not exactly tackling the root cause behind our social media problems and painting an issue in a purely black and white manner rarely works.

THE UNDERLYING PROBLEM

One of Essena's chief complaints in the issue that most of her photos are staged. That her boobs, tummy and dresses are fake. Some photos took more than hundred reshoots. She claims that she's doing this in order to feel validated and the social media is to be blamed for this. I beg to differ.

The problem here is not social media, but it is our warped definition of beauty. Skinny models, disproportionate body measurements and photoshopped pictures are not native to social media. They have been among our society for the longest time, in print media, billboards and ads, and have been subjected to criticisms by the feminist movement for portraying an unrealistic idea of beauty.

Social media is not to be blamed for this, our warped sense of beauty is. Social media is merely reinforcing this idea of beauty. Because we are more likely (as a guy at least) to like or share a photo of a pretty girl, despite how much we say we prefer a natural look (hypocrites, aren't we).

Instagrammers are merely reflecting this warped idea of beauty by taking pictures that fit into this definition, which in turn we reward by giving them more attention. It becomes a self-reinforcing vicious cycle. Heck, even for our real life celebrities we prefer someone like Kim Kardashian merely for her looks.

Unless society as whole can move beyond worshiping looks, quitting social media will not stop this problem that only some form of beauty are appreciated.

INTERNET BROKEN: I don't think it's the social media's fault for us guys to ogle over this photo

IT'S NOT ALWAYS BLACK AND WHITE

Another issue with Essena's line of argument is that social media is mostly negative. It is viewed as a cause rather than a manifestation of what's wrong with our society. I don't deny that her life may have been negatively affected during her career as an Instagrammer, but putting the entire blame squarely on social media seem a little convenient as an argument, no?

Unlike cigarettes, social media on itself is not entirely bad. Yes, it may perpetuate some unhealthy habits like the constant search for virtual likes and followers, but it's not like everyone who gets on to social media is sucked into this need for approval. I wholly believe that it is your choice to let how social media affect you, whether you want to allow yourself to be constantly chasing Likes. There are tons of people who can use social media without obsessing over their social media popularity.

The whole system of Likes may be seductive  and perhaps broken (after all it's feeding into our human psyche of wanting to be accepted), but I don't think a sweeping judgment like it is "not real" really solves the problem. It is only one part of social media, it is not the entire part.

Social media, like it or not, has done good too. It has helped fuel revolutions (the ones that toppled governments), the spread of ideas and the liberation of knowledge. It has allowed us to connect with one another, to be part of important global conversations and to be bigger than ourselves. Social media has a lot of potential, and while we need to acknowledge the bad, we can't ignore the good. The key is learning how to use it to its fullest potential for good, not self-serving purposes.

NOT THAT BAD: In 2009, social media was one of the key tools used by Iranians to drive the protests

I am not lessening the impact that Essena may have — she did get a lot of people talking — but I am just concerned that this could turn into just another passing fad. Worse still, her campaign may have a totally opposite effect (some are already saying that this is perhaps an effective publicity stunt). Personally, I feel that taking on social media is too big a campaign to take on the first go. Perhaps if she could have focused on Instagram it would have a more stronger impact.

Personally x2, I don't think there's anything wrong with doing what Essena is previously doing on Instagram. It can be a form of career, after all. Professional models do what she does all the time. Plus it's not like she's not earning anything from it. If you want to make it big in anything, there needs to be sacrifices. The issue here may be the blurring between the lines of personal and professional lives — which may have led to her dissatisfaction on social media — but social media is not squarely to blame.

We need to relook social media validation needs. Perhaps there needs to be a clearer definition on what constitutes private vs public, whether we want our social media to be limited to just friends or do we want to go big and make a career out of it.

It's like singing, actually. You can sing all you want in the toilet but when you make the decision that you want to sing professionally, then that's when the hard work kicks in. Music practices, voice projection practices etc. Not unlike dieting and tucking in your tummy for that photo.

Perhaps children needs to be better educated on this so they don't go into social media thinking that their value needs to be measured by how many likes they get online. Education may be the key.

Perhaps there needs to be more focus on the good of social media, instead of just on that pretty babe on Instagram. Like using it to spread innovative ideas and causes (which Essena has been trying to do, and I will credit her for that. But then again, veganism?)

Perhaps we need to start to evaluate where do we give our likes. Because when the likes stop, so will the practice. Plain supply and demand issue.

Of course, all these are complex issues and require a gargantuan amount of effort to even begin tackling any of them. I guess it's always easier to call it quits and throw in the phone. Let me update my status on this first.

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