Essena O’Neill is more famous than ever before. Her name dominated headlines around the world this week, after the Instagram star began deleting her social media accounts in a bid to expose how fake social media can be.
It has left the social media world split between two opinions of O’Neill – those who consider her an inspiration, and others who have accused her of being more fake than ever.
As Global News reported Tuesday, O’Neill – who had over half a million Instagram followers – began deleting her SnapChat and Tumblr accounts and removed over 2,000 photos from her Instagram page last week after she confessed she was addicted to likes, accepted money from designers whose outfits she wore in photos, and staged photos.
The photos that remained on her Instagram were then edited to tell the truth behind the picture – whether it was a faked promotional shot for a brand, or a selfie that took hundreds of takes and hours of editing to perfect.
By Wednesday, O’Neill’s Instagram account had been deleted altogether.
O’Neill now communicates solely through her new website, “Let’s Be Game Changers,” which aims to educate users about the so-called “fake” world on social media and deter them from becoming obsessed with likes and followers.
On Tuesday, YouTube personalities – and former friends of O’Neill – Nina and Randa posted a video to their channel alleging the entire thing was a publicity stunt. The sister-duo expressed skepticism surrounding O’Neill’s decision to leave social media, alleging O’Neill was upset about a breakup.
In a forum on her website, O’Neill declined to comment directly on the YouTuber’s accusations, but maintained that she quit social media in order to do more meaningful things with her life.
The “forums” section on O’Neill’s website has since been deleted.
“Forum temporarily taken down until I can find a more suitable and positive platform,” read a message on her website.
Canadian fashion blogger Ania Boniecka, who herself has amassed a major following online, chalks the whole thing up to a cry for attention from someone who’s known nothing but social media.
“This alone is a sad failure to recognize what an amazing place we are in right now, literally a new frontier,” Boniecka said. “She is in a place where she can either stay and be part of that discovery or throw it all away.”
Others have pointed out that O’Neill – who has refeused to do any sort of sponsored content on her website – is now asking fans to donate money through her website so she can work on “future projects.”
“I want everything here to be of high quality, from my heart and 100% free. No priced subscription or membership, no fixed fees on upcoming projects and especially no sly or perfectly posed Instagram product placements,” reads her website.
“The button below is my open hat to you. If you get something from what I’m doing, pay what it’s worth to you.”
Gabrielle Epstein, an Instagram model and bio-medicine student with almost 900,000 followers, also weighed in on the debate on her Instagram page. She admitted that while she chooses to highlight only some of her life on social media, she disputed O’Neill’s belief that it makes her “fake.”
“Of course Instagram isn’t real life. Everyone, myself included, chooses the highlight reel of their life to present on social media – we all know that and it is all our choice to be a part of it. However, that doesn’t mean I have ever pretended to be someone that I am not on Instagram,” she wrote.
“I will always consider myself to be very grateful and humbled to be in a position to take advantage of the opportunity that Instagram has given me, but I want to be clear that my value of self worth has nothing to do with likes or comments.”
Seventeen-year-old Lauren Giraldo – who has over 4.4 million followers across Instagram, Vine, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook – sympathized with O’Neill feeling pressure to look perfect, gain followers and get record likes, but criticized her for making generalizations about the industry.
“It’s unfair for you to shame social media for being fake, and being a lie,” she wrote in a blog post for Cosmopolitan. “Not everything you see on social media is fake, and it is unfair to say everyone on the Internet wants money, because that’s not true. Social media praise might have once been the key to your happiness, but that’s not what being a influencer is about for everyone.”
Meanwhile, O’Neill continues to update her website – the majority of which appears to be under construction – with inspirational speeches and talks.