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Has the Instagram economy met its Edward Snowden in Essena O’Neill?

EssenaONeill Australian Instagram influencer Essena O’Neill deleted her social media accounts on October 27, after modifying many of the pictures that ended up making her both famous and a fair income through the integration of seemingly mundane product placement opportunities into the day-to-day life of a photogenic teenage girl.

On November 2, O’Neill uploaded an emotional 17-minute video explaining her decision to throw it all away. The video has racked up over 1.2 million views.

Updating her old Instagram photos before she deleted them, over 2,000 in all, O’Neill wrote “SOCIAL MEDIA IS NOT REAL” beside an Instagram photo for which she was paid $400 to wear a dress while drinking juice out of a Mason jar.

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Now 19, O’Neill has scrapped her old career, declaring independence, saying that her Instagram career “served no real purpose other than self-promotion.”

Or to be accurate, self promotion and product promotion. Lots of brands offered O’Neill lots of money starting when she was 12 years old, “$2000AUD a post EASY” she wrote, to sponsor a picture of her wearing a dress or drinking some tea.

And why not? Instagram influencers with hundreds of thousands of followers can earn anywhere from $500 to $5,000 per post, with paydays of $20,000 to $100,000 waiting for those with 6 million followers or higher.

“Be aware what people promote,” she writes in an updated Instagram picture, “ask yourself, what’s their intention behind the photo?”

With 612,000 Instagram followers, 250,000 followers on YouTube and Tumblr, and 60,000 average views per Snapchat, deleting all of that social capital is perhaps a calculated gamble in a larger campaign to boost her celebrity status even higher, as many now accuse her of doing.

She has retained her Vimeo account and updated her Tumblr with a link sending followers to a new site, called Let’s Be Game Changers, which is almost certainly getting more traffic through the publicity generated by her actions than she would have had through her next piece of native advertising on Instagram.

There is a “Support Me” button on the Let’s Be Game Changers site, where O’Neill promises to use her fame to promote her values relating to veganism, environmentalism, animal rights and poetry.

“I can’t afford rent right now,” she says. “It’s like I’m just embarrassed to admit that I need help … if you like my videos or like any of my posts or you like this website, if this is of value to you, then yeah, please support me because I can’t afford my own real life.”

She’s now fielding interview requests from Good Morning America, though, and “…all these massive media outlets want to do interviews that want to talk about the reality behind social media and I feel so grateful that this is getting spread, that young people can find out the reality behind the ‘perfect Instagram life.’”

It didn’t take long for her to establish her new identity as a social media Martin Luther.

Her first blog post on October 31 challenges her new followers to go without social media for a week and recommends that they read Elizabeth Gilbert, Brene Brown and Eckhart Tolle.

Even if her motives aren’t absolutely pure, however, her message is crystal clear: Her life wasn’t real.

Writing about an Instagram photo taken on her 15th birthday, at a moment when all O’Neill wanted “was to be Facebook Famous”, she tells the story behind the picture for which she “forced” her little sister to take a photo of her wearing a revealing outfit that she never wore out of the house, and then shouted at her “for not ‘doing it how I wanted'”.

Both the photo itself and O’Neill’s smile look spontaneous enough, but it took 30 minutes to achieve the result and the process made her and her sister miserable.

That night she had dinner with her family, during which she stared down at her phone, watching the numbers climb.

She ends that post writing, “Living through screens is not real life. It was suffocating me and all my creativity, passion, purpose, ability to love and ability to feel human connection. And then just like that I decided I don’t need social media at all. So I quit everything. I can’t tell you how free I feel.”

With media’s overall decline through loss of advertising revenue, it has become clear that money is flowing into new models for promotion, whether that means companies planting advertisements disguised as news stories or the stealth use of social media to place a photo of some celebrity promoting a particular brand.

O’Neill’s social media freak-out resembles that of comedy star Russell Brand’s decision to become a political messiah. On the one hand, it looks kind of flaky and diffuse, but no one can really doubt the sincerity behind a reaction of disgust at how low a person can sink before realizing that their life is built on nothing.

Also, the girl is 19 years old. Cut her a break. She threw away a lucrative career for the opportunity to do something real with her life.

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