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The lies of Instagram: how the cult of authenticity spun out of control

Model Essena O’Neill has rebranded her Instagram account with “honest” captions, saying the platform is “not real life”. We asked Instagrammers and academics whether she has a point. 

Our online personas aren’t real. We all know that. None of us spend all our time staring down the barrel of expensive coffees, or on romantic trips to hot locales. None of us curate and crop ourselves as effectively in the real world as we do on screen. 

Over the past year or so, though, there has been a growing sense that online personas – especially the better known ones – are even less real than we realised. Last week, a catalyst appeared in the form of Australian model and social media star Essena O’Neill, who quit her Instagram, Tumblr and Snapchat accounts after becoming disillusioned with the whole process. Since, she has released a series stream of tear-stained, makeup-free videos explaining her decision.

In a particularly arresting move, she also deleted the majority of her 2,000-odd Instagram posts, leaving behind only 96 with new, “honest” captions. (She has since changed her Instagram account settings to “private”.) One read:

“Social media, especially how I used it, isn’t real. It’s contrived images and edited clips ranked against each other. It’s a system based on social approval, likes, validation, in views, success in followers. It’s perfectly orchestrated self-absorbed judgment.”

Others explained the reality behind the picture, like this one:

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	Themes emerged: disordered eating, obsessive photo-taking, and, in general, no real enjoyment in whatever activity the photo supposedly showed. ”There is nothing zen about trying to look zen, taking a photo of you trying to be zen and proving your zen on Instaram,“ as she commented on a photo of herself in a meditation pose on a beach. 

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	The deception could have gone further. In ”<a href=“https://vimeo.com/144940954”>Love Gets Likes</a>“, a video posted last weekend, O’Neill describes how she was approached by a famous male supermodel about embarking on an “online relationship”: “He said that we could make heap loads of money. He said I should think of it seriously as a business proposal”. No wonder she was desperate to re-enter the real world.<div class=

Of course, there were question marks over O’Neill’s dramatic self-dethroning, too. Instagrammer friends came forward, claiming a breakup with a boyfriend was what really prompted O’Neill’s breakup with social media. And O’Neill’s appeal for donations via her new site, letsbegamechangers.com beause she now ”can’t afford“ her lifestyle seems a little off considering she was almost certainly earning six figures a year through her social media fame. 

But for the internet at large, O’Neill’s claims ring true, especially when it comes to Instagram. Her actions prompted a wave of similar, “here’s what was really happening when I took this photo” pieces from other users.  A few viral articles pre-empted O’Neill in their exposure of Instagram’s ability to make ordinary scenes look extraordinary: subjects on beaches that turn out to be rubbish-strewn when you pan outwards; a carefully curated shot of a Macbook on a bed surrounded by a – shock horror – messy room.

While it’s clearly not the most worrying aspect of social media for O’Neill herself, her biggest and most damaging claim for the site and its users centres on advertising. Essentially: it’s everywhere. Many of O’Neill’s posts featured one or more items of clothing placed by brands, which would have paid O’Neill hundreds, or even thousands of dollars for the favour. The posts were not marked out as sponsored. 

As O’Neill points out – and we all, deep down, knew already – lifestyle Instagrammers post sponsored pictures all the time. Yet depending in their country of posting, this could land them in legal hot water. In the UK, the Advertising Standards Agency warned bloggers last year against unmarked sponsored posts, which contravenes the ASA code, and also, potentially, UK law. 

“My fans can sniff the BS”

I spoke to seveal media academics about the O’Neill story, and they suggested that the “cult of authenticity” which is at the heart of Instagram’s model has everything to do with the rise in unmarked sponsored posts. As New York magazine pointed out this week, Instagram has the feel of an intimate diary or blog. Its seen as a collection of personally taken and curated photos and captions, and is therefore the perfect home for the selfie: an image arranged, taken, and posted by its subject. On Twitter, it’s known and even accepted that staff often run celebrity or politican accounts, but as Rihanna told Harper’s Bazaar, heaven forbid she not run her own Instagram feed: ”My fans can sniff the BS from very far away. I cannot trick them.“

“We’re witnessing a renewed interest and valuing of authenticity where content that is seen to be “real” and accurate is more likely to succeed,” Dr Heather Ford, a fellow in Digital Methods at Leeds University tells me by email. Advertisers know this just as well as savvy Instagram users with thousands of followers, which is why products embedded in ”real“ content are the advertising holy grail. To point out that a post is sponsored is to render it pointless, and damaging to both brand and Instagram personality. 

Dr Ellen Hesper, Director of Graduate studies at LSE’s Media and Communications Department, notes that “openly advertising (that is, being paid for what you do) and being open about the amount of work that goes into maintaining a cohesive, true online persona are a no-go in a digital world where authenticity is key”. This is why O’Neill’s admission that her beach-ready body is the result of endless effort is, effectively, social media kamikaze.

The cult of authenticity is especially damaging, Helpser points out, because it is both “opaque and insidious” – it is a genuinely different beast from the advertising and marketing products of the 20th century, especially as its engaging individuals who have not entered these industries in a standard way. Helpser describes the birth of social media stars like O’Neill as a “toxic cocktail” where ordinary young people are yanked out of obscurity via their phone screens: “They’re lifted to celebrity status without the support that more traditional celebrities have. They’re on their own in managing their image and production.”

And here’s the Catch-22: as soon as these young people are seen to be “managed” - or, as it might be better described, ”supported“ – they’re no longer authentic or relatable. Inherent to the myth of the social media star is that anyone can be one. The internet taught us that anyone can achieve levels of fame and wealth previously reserved for an inaccessible class of celebrity. (Research from the Oxford Internet Institute shows that Instagram actually made users feel 11 per cent worse about their lives than other social media platforms, perhaps because ultimately, the filtered versions of others’ everyday lives, which purport to be real representations, make us feel worse about our own than obviously false images would.)

The cult of authenticity is a trap for both those who enviously browse and those who post. O’Neill genuinely came to believe that her self-worth depended on the approbation of her followers. After quitting, she vowed: “Never again will I let a number define me. IT SUFFOCATED ME”.  The process O’Neill describes is circular: she deceives her followers, who give her positive endorsements in the form of likes. She wants more, so tries even harder to make her life seem perfect. It’s a feedback loop, one not dissimilar to addiction.  

As Helpser tells me, Instagram and other social media sites are only part of the cult of the authentic and the ”normal“: “The questions that should be asked is why these norms have arisen in the first place – what wider society is doing to create these ideas that wealth, popularity and stardom can be achieved by anyone – especially since we know that societies are in fact becoming more unequal.”

“It was a window into their lives”

I spoke to several Instagrammers, all of whom joined the site early on, and have noticed that it has changed since. Sean Rees posted his first picture in November 2010, and has around 46,400 followers at time of writing (his followers peaked at 75,000) after being featured on Instagram’s ”suggested users“ list several years ago. He’s a graphic designer, and initially used Instagram to follow photographers he admired: “It was like a window into the photographers’ lives. It felt casual, pure and spontaneous. No pressure to be polished or pefect.” He feels the platform has become less authentic, but in his view, some amount of fakery is to be expected: “The very process of taking a picture could be interpreted as a fake representation of life”.

Another user, who wished to remain anonymous, also gained followers throuh the “suggested users list” – sometimes up to 6,000 per day. She feels protected from some of the effects O’Neill describes by the fact she rarely posts images of her private life. “Being in my 30s, I’m not interested in focusing my account on myself… O’Neill and I use Instagram in a different way, for different purposes,” she says.

Olivia Purvis, a UK lifestyle blogger with 103,000 followers, confirms that it’s “less stressful” posting a “lifestyle image” which doesn’t feature her own face or body. “Social media is what you make of it,” she tells me. “As a blogger, there are opportunities to feature ’sponsored’ content on these platforms, but it’s [about] the way you articulate that to the people that follow you, and how transparent you are.” 

As she implies, it’s possible to use Instagram without damaging yourself or lying to your fans. Instagram’s emphasis on authenticity - seen in the company’s refusal to allow users to post links, for example - is also its greatest strength. The platform’s endless, infinite-scrolling appeal lies in its potential to let us stare into the real lives of those we know or admire; to see the world through their eyes. At the same time, this emphasis on authenticity makes Instagram and its users the perfect targets for the different types of deception O’Neill describes. It’s hard to know which could be more damaging: the loss of Instagram’s sense of spontanaeity and authenticity, or the rabid attempts to fake it. 

Meanwhile, O’Neill may have moved on to different platforms, but she is still reaching fans through screens on her new website and videos. Indeed, her new persona is, at heart, “authentic”: she speaks with messy hair and tear-swollen eyes about the “real” life behind her Instagram feed. Perhaps it is this which gives a sour edge to her reinvention. If social media really is an authenticity beauty pageant, O’Neill just won herself a rosette. 

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.