Ethos and Instagram: Essena O’Neil


This week’s post touches on ethos, or identity, image or credibility of an author. Ethos can be used to persuade, relate impressions and convey notions about one’s character. This especially is true in online contexts where it is what we rely upon to communicate our sense of self with others.

In light of the major news story this week I think ethos is an important topic to touch on. For those of you who haven’t heard, Essena O’Neil, a social media starlet from Australia with over 800,000 Instagram followers and 270,000 on You Tube is calling it quits and leaving it all behind. This provides a relevant opportunity to examine social media, ethos and the implications it can have. While she looked like she was at the pinnacle of success, her job of being on social media and the ethos she created was consuming her life.

In an online confessional video explaining why she decided to quite social media O’Neil states,“my whole idea of self worth revolved around my appearance and my social media status. Basically, my self worth relied on social approval.” Everything she did- from the food she ate to the clothes she wore to the exercises she did- was to prove herself online and keep up her credibility as a”perfect person”. Because she created an image of herself that others feel that is unattainable, her success hinged on lies, followers, views and likes. One article even said, “The most authentic girl on Instagram is made of plastic.” 

Some may say she is selfish, others may say she is selfless. Is it all a hoax- using social media to criticize social media to become popular on social media?

Real Talk

On Friday we had a slow day at the office, and my coworkers and I spent the better part of yesterday discussing this story. Interestingly, that the group I was discussing this issue with was all female, ranging in age from 23 to 48. While the eldest in our group applauded her efforts to be real, the youngsters of the bunch shot holes in her argument. Below you can find some of the points our conversation brought up:


  • Quitting to get back to a more natural way of existing and reassessing things in her life.
  • She was encouraged and rewarded with hundreds of thousands of followers, money, contracts, and fame. If she was uncomfortable with it, it is her decisions. Let it go.
  • We shouldn’t feel we have to do anything to be up to someone else’s standards.
  • Now she can develop her new audience and approach with her new website and use Social Media differently.
  • She can use her tremendously positive force and use her frame to rebrand herself into the way she wants to be.
  • Ditching all expectations and pressure is awesome.


  • Ironic that she “got what she wanted” but then bashes it for being fake.
  • The reason that she is blaming social media is your classic burn out story. She finally realized that relying on her looks will be unsustainable, so she is cashing out while she is on top.
  • What’s wrong with showing a photo or wearing yourself made up?
  • Fame doesn’t equate to happiness.
  • Just because she views likes and views as validation don’t necessarily mean that everyone is that way. Generalizing they way that people view social media and lumping it together is not true. THE ONLY way she can spread her message is through social media.
  • No one talking about social media is trying to deceive you.
  • Its a reflection of her in choosing to wear or promote certain brands.
  • While her comments certainly make sense in her situation, can they apply to the average Instagrammer in the same way?


What I gathered from her post and confessional like videos is that she wants to be more transparent and honest and not do sponsored or extremely posed shots. While I’m not sure her intentions for quitting are 100% pure, this highlights a few important issues. O’Neil’s story opens a conversation not just about this case, but rather as our use os social media as a whole. The ethos she created is an illusion, yet her essence is so much more. She felt as if her numbers were overshadowing the content- her creativity, her personality, her intellect- the person she is. Social media isn’t the problem, but its how people use it that are the problem. It is how people are comparing themselves to these fake ethos, instead of just letting it motivate them. Particularly, the normality of image obsession, especially with younger girls is concerning. O’Neil’s story is especially important because she grew up with social media and belongs to a generation that did so as well.

One user said: “I wasn’t a fan of you before but I am now. Thank you for adopting a smart and realistic approach to social media and an even bigger thanks for moving things in the right direction.”

Perhaps its time for all of us to take a social media break…

Posted on November 8, 2015, in Blogs, Social Media, Society and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. Interesting conversation you brought us into! I honestly don’t know anything about this person. It does touch on something I have been talking about lately though. You would think that the explosion of social media would expose us to more reality in terms of how people look and live. It is actually quite amazing that so many people can still “keep up appearances.” Women of every age are posting on Instagram and Facebook, yet, there are still such unrealistic ideals of beauty and aging. (I’m not even going to mention the unrealistic ideas–due to selective presentation in social media–about housekeeping, our lifestyles, our parenting.)

    My oh-so-unrealistic social media fantasy? That somehow the majority of women will get really, REALLY brave and post the reality of what a bad break up, bad hair, not enough sleep, pregnancy, coming down with a cold, or just not wearing makeup looks like. Yes, I want to see an outpouring of ugly (or at least ordinary) all over social media, just so it stops being what we label “ugly” (or average or unattractive or unsightly, etc.) and becomes “how it really is.” I imagine life would be much less stressful (I can count a dozen ways right off the top of my head.) and we’d all feel so much better about ourselves…. BUT, until those brave women take a stand and start posting “reality,” I will be forced to continue to only post Facebook photos where I have makeup on and look thin. Oh, the irony…lol. 🙂

    • Haha! Similar to Mary’s comment below, it would be interesting to see what “real” social media would be like. Would it be a relief? Or would we become bored with it because things are exactly the way we expect them to be?

  2. Interesting post and comment. I applaud that young woman for stopping, but was her only alternative to stop altogether and abandon her following? It’s interesting how she chose that rather than to tell the truth by posting photos of her when she first wakes up in the morning or stories about how she “cheats” on her vegan diet by sneaking Whoppers about once a week.

    I wrote an essay/parody recently about what Facebook would look like if we all told the unvarnished “truth” about what our lives were really like and included lessons learned. For example, a month ago, I could have posted “My 13-year-old son and his friends wrote satanic symbols on a church basement whiteboard during his Boy Scout meeting. Am I a bad mom?” But no, I kept that one largely to myself.

    My essay was about the real harm that “plastic people” (and that includes many if not all of us) do to people’s self-esteem and stress levels by inflicting posed photos and embellished vignettes of our lives. It is so easy to compare yourselves with others, many of whom appear, cooler, wealthier, happier and hotter than you. Of course, we’re not ever going to get (nor would we want) a full narrative of people’s lives, a little more ethos could make it perhaps a more useful and interesting forum that we could learn from.

    • Your essay sounds great! It would be interesting if Facebook posts showed the “unvarnished truth” of our lives wouldn’t it? Even if the “experiment” only lasted a day, I would be curious to see how it would turn out….

  3. This is such an interesting conversation. I totally understand the craving to see more reality on social media, and I am all about finding ways to boost confidence, especially in women. I’m going to play devil’s advocate, though. I don’t think that the blame should fall entirely on the person posting. Yes, it would be refreshing to see a less-than-perfect picture from time to time, but we also have to stop comparing ourselves to the retouched lives we see online.

    I have a friend who started her own business as a marketing consultant and graphic designer. Her Instagram page is GORGEOUS! She recently started posting these beautiful pictures of her apartment, and part of me started going down the road of, “Oh my goodness, my apartment looks nowhere as nice as that.” But then I took a second look. Each picture was of a corner, or the top of a coffee table, or the light through a curtained window. Everything was beautifully curated and **cropped.** When I take a step back I KNOW that these images are highly selective. I myself have been on the publishing side of such images. I know what my life really looks like. It’s not quite as sepia toned as my Instagram might show it to be. Why would I assume that anyone’s real life is as perfect as their social media depicts it? For my friend, her Instagram is searchable under her name and it’s part of her professional online persona. Of course it will be perfect. I’ve since been in her apartment, and it is beautiful… but also just a regular apartment.

    I find a lot of pleasure taking pictures of interesting things I see or do, editing them and posting them online. Of course show myself in the best light I can, though oftentimes my images are more artsy than biographical. I share what I want my friends to see, and I trust in either their knowledge of my imperfect life or their common sense to know that I am not a perfect human being. My circle tends to celebrate the perfect moments captured with our cameras as bright spots in each others’ days, instead of assuming that they are windows into a uniformly perfect life. My confidence is boosted through my sharing, though my identity certainly doesn’t hinge upon my social media presence. I have problems believing that that positive feedback from friends and family is bad for me or harming them.

    • HI Allie,

      You bring up some great points.

      While we all have something in the back of our minds telling us that these photos don’t paint a realistic picture of our lives. Its just hard to separate the image of perfection from the nagging voice that reminds us this is not the way things always are.

      Also, I think that there is nothing wrong with posting awesome photos (especially if it makes you feel good). This example just illustrates what can happen when things are taken too far. As is the case for many things, moderation is key 🙂

  4. I tweeted about Essena last week and was surprised when a few students reacted with many of the cons on your list, especially that she was blaming social media for her actions.

    I thought it was great that she didn’t just delete everything and instead went to edit the captions on the photos to tell the real story of how posed everything was. I feel teenagers can learn a lot from that! But I’ll need to read more…likely to use this as an example in my undergraduate rhetoric course next spring!

  5. BAM! I applaud your statement where you state, “social media isn’t the problem, but it’s how people use it that are the problem”. This reminds me of this ongoing political debate of with guns – guns don’t kill people, people kill people. And with that argument comes a double edged sword, one side arguing the humans are the issue and the other side arguing guns are the issue. In this scenario, it is the same situation, is it the person or is it the tool?

    I agree with you, in I feel it is how people use the tool and the expectations that are set. Therefore as a part of any social media strategy, it is important that organizations define how they use any type of communication channel. I think this is especially important when it comes to social media channels because they are even more accessible by more people than some other types of communication channels (i.e. Web site design/creation).


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