The Instagram Exodus


Photo Source: Essena O’Neill

Cyber celebrities are leaving Instagram at an alarming pace, and based on the magazine articles being written about them, it might as well be the online apocalypse.  Essena O’Neill, an Australian teen with 500,000 Instagram followers, announced that she was quitting Instagram and all other social media (her new website excluded) and the Internet went crazy.  O’Neill explains this decision on her website, Let’s Be Game Changers:

“I spent 12-16 wishing I could receive validation from numbers on a screen. I spent [the] majority of my teen years being self absorbed, trying desperately to please others and feel ‘enough’. . . I didn’t talk about topics and interests of me, nor did I pursue my childhood talent for writing. I didn’t find happiness in social approval, constantly edited and shooting my life.”

She also mentions that she felt like she was fooling people, and draws attention to the fact that popular Instagrammers are often paid hundreds of dollars for a single post promoting a brand.  In a video posted to her site she explained that, free from the bondage of social media, she is now simply enjoying her life, rather than obsessing over her image.  She has time for reading educational books, pursuing her passion for writing, and spreading awareness for causes that are important to her—conscious living, addiction to technology, transparency online, veganism, environmental awareness, and gender equality are a few of the many that she lists.

Despite her assertions that social media is totally fake, her fans don’t really know her, she’s been paid to advertise to them, and nothing about it is real, O’Neill’s Instagram shot up to almost 800,000 followers before she disabled her account, with fans applauding her for being so transparent.

But O’Neill has also received backlash from fans and even former friends, claiming that she is merely re-creating her online persona, and labeling herself anti-social-media is just a ploy to get attention and promote her website.  Whether that’s her intention or not, it’s clearly working.


Photo Source: Eileen Kelly for W Magazine

Another Instagram star, Eileen Kelly, better known by her handle @KillerandaSweetThang, also opened up about the pressure that comes with being followed by over 130,000 fans.  Not only does she have to deal with the insecurity of posting perfect pictures that would garner more likes and followers, she also has to deal with the intrusive questions that come with fame.   She had a falling out with one of her best friends because of Instagram.  She even had an experience with a former fan who felt like she personally knew Kelly and began to stalk her and send her threatening messages.  Kelly deleted her Twitter and Snapchat and, like O’Neill, has shifted her focus back to what really matters.  In an interview with W Magazine, Kelly says that she is “really passionate about sex education,” and that she would like to go back to school for gender studies.

While I applaud these women for doing what is best for them, I can’t help but wonder if social media is really the problem here.  I mean, does anyone really think that a person’s social media account is an honest representation of their life?  Sure, we’ve all felt the sting of seeing our ex get a new significant other and become “Facebook Official,” or felt inferior when we see one exceptionally fit friend post pictures of herself, flawlessly made up, in impossible yoga poses.  But we know that we curate our pictures to fit our online persona and they do, too.  We post our highlights.  We let everyone on Facebook know about our new job.  We tweet the one funny thought we’ve had all month. We don’t post pictures of the nights when we sit in the bathtub and devour an entire bucket of fried chicken and then cry ourselves to sleep.

I think the root of the problem here is that we are expecting Instagram and other social media platforms to take the place of genuine connection and friendship, and they are simply not able to live up to the task.  Instagram stars but also normal social media users get caught up in getting people to “like” them but also like them.  We crave a real connection – “LET’S TALK ABOUT REAL STUFF AND REAL PEOPLE” O’Neill entreats on her website – but we won’t find that by posting a picture of our artfully crafted salad with a Valencia filter.  Social media is a fun way to express ourselves, to find artistic inspiration, and to connect with people we would never meet in “real life,” but it is no substitute for a face-to-face conversation.


Photo Source: Socality Barbie

We are desperate for “authentic relationships,” to borrow a phrase from satire account @SocalityBarbie—who, coincidentally, is also quitting Instagram.  It’s a cruel juxtaposition; we want to put our best self out there so the most people will like us, but what we really need is people who like who we are, even without a filter and a Lana Del Rey lyric caption.

Social media isn’t the enemy, and taking a break from it won’t magically free you from insecurity, social anxiety, and isolation.  If you don’t have self-confidence, you’ll always look for validation from someone or something else.  You’ll only be content when you learn to like yourself, even if no one likes your selfie.