Four years after she deleted her popular social media profiles the Australian influencer is back, with a message
Four years before Blake Lively realised that wiping her old posts could be a great source of publicity; four years before Caroline Calloway exploded into popular consciousness or Tavi Gevinson meticulously unpacked her own adolescent self-branding efforts, Essena ONeill deleted her Instagram account. The Australian influencer had amassed 600,000+ followers. Shed been paid $2,000 a post for #sponcon.
ONeill grew up on Instagram. She joined the platform at the age of 14 and by 19 it had become her primary source of income, validation and affection. It was 2015, and she was sick of it.
In her posts shed been smiling. Shed been posing in paradise. She was thin and white, often in a bikini, with long, perfectly tussled blond hair. Then, in a tearful video she declared: This isnt real. She was miserable. She was anxious about her body. Despite her cute outfits, she was broke.
The confessional skyrocketed her out of her niche community and into the mainstream. Her follower count ticked upwards of one million.
In her book Trick Mirror, Jia Tolentino writes: The anti-Instagram statement is now a predictable part of the model/influencer social media life cycle: a beautiful young woman who goes to great pains to maintain and perform her own beauty for an audience will eventually post a note on Instagram revealing that Instagram has become a bottomless pit of personal insecurity and anxiety. Shell take a weeklong break from the social network and then, almost always, she will go on exactly as before.
Except, perhaps, not exactly as before. ONeill was one of the first influencers to make a confession like this. For many influencers and celebrities who followed her lead, this dose of reality won them fresh attention and waves of new followers. The pause allowed them to pivot to the hottest commodity on the platform: authenticity.
A getting real moment can act like rinse aid for the social media machine. It unclogs the accumulated ick around the ethics of self-promotion, only to reveal a digital self thats even shinier.
Barely out of childhood, ONeill drafted the blueprint for this moment. But its architect never finished her project.
Unlike the influencers Tolentino describes, ONeill did not go on exactly as before. In the words of a former schoolmate, she ceased to exist. After her initial viral moment, ONeill set up a website and started soliciting donations for her content, so that she wouldnt have to do sponsored posts any more. She had a book deal in the works. A few months later, in 2016, to cries of scam, she shut the website down. She digitally disappeared, the book never materialised.
All in all, ONeill had raised about $10,000 for her new content project. In an interview with the vlogger and pop culture critic Tiffany Ferg, ONeill recently explained that she donated some of the money to charity, and the rest she spent on rent.
Now, at 23, shes back. There was something so special about what I had online, and I want it again, she told Ferg. As for what shes been up to in the intervening years, Ive been working many shitty jobs. Ive been struggling. It hasnt been great.
Her new project is a website: Authority Within. Its inspired by the long captions and sense of community she once found on Tumblr. A podcast is forthcoming.
Though ONeill contacted Guardian Australia when the site launched, she declined an interview, for the moment, saying: Authority Within is my message now.
The message goes beyond easy aphorisms such as be kind to your body or treasure real friendships. After falling hard into her constructed selfhood, spending five years in this endless cycle of consumption, then wandering off into the digital wilderness for four years, it seems ONeill has become a materialist.
Not the kind that accepts free clothes and jewellery the kind thats reading Marx.
We understand the good life as the dominant narrative … We feel these ideas are force fed to the public via the dominant digital culture that is supporting and sustaining the capitalist elite theyoung, beautiful, positive, inspiring individuals who are INSANELY successful right now, her website states. The neoliberal good life is a facade/individual trip and is literally killing/enslaving the rest of the world.
Amid the YouTube embeds, collectivist ideals, musings on alienation, Deleuze quotes and explorations of polyamory, her website also links to a Patreon page where subscribers can support the project.
ONeill insisted to Ferg that neither her disappearance or reappearance have been a calculation. A marketing scheme? she said. Yeah just do a rant about your deepest feelings? Id never recommend to have an emotional outburst online.
Reading Authority Within feels a little like falling into a leftist YouTube wormhole, or a hazy conversation in the early hours of the morning. Its disorientating, stylised and very far from brand safe. In her interview with Ferg, ONeill was open about her mental health struggles, and the difficult comedown from the insane pleasure of earning money like that. Working minimum wage and getting paid to promote a cute vegan product, its different. Its a different world.
Many of the young women who grew up with Instagram are now questioning the outsized role its played in their lives. As a result of that interrogation, they are using the platform differently.
ONeill is going further. She is being vulnerable in a way that no-makeup selfies and grainy candids are not. Unlike so many of the influencers who share their getting real moment, ONeill is not illustrating her digital comeback using her corporeal body. So far, excepting the picture in her bio, she has not posted a photograph of herself.
Illustrating a long, confessional caption with a personal snap is a kind of sleight-of-hand. Followers may appreciate your candour, or they may be sticking around for the same reason they came in the first place: to look at the pictures.
Influencer marketing surveys suggest we want more authenticity from those we follow. ONeill is asking to rejoin a community while rejecting its primary currency. Shes telling the world to listen, not look. And what shes saying is far from mainstream palatability. In a way, its a dare: how much authenticity can you handle?