The answer, of course, is both. And 19-year-old Instagram model Essena O’Neill’s very public rejection of the inauthentic nature of social media last week can been read through both lenses.
On the one hand, O’Neill deleted her heavily trafficked Instagram, YouTube and Tumblr accounts, and re-directed her audience to her new blog decrying the artificiality of social media life. She was embraced by many for revealing the inner workings of a poorly understood social media marketplace. Deleting accounts with more half a million followers certainly does make a statement.
On the other hand, O’Neill’s actions have also been interpreted as a rebranding effort, shifting away from the world of modelling toward a new online identity as a vegan eco-warrior.
Influencing the influencers
Given the large numbers of followers, they are very attractive platforms for brands and marketers wanting to reach these “organic” social media audiences. Yet, while these social media channels often depict idyllic lives, O’Neill’s dramatic revelations have raised questions about the authenticity of many influencers.
Or, more specifically, questions about exactly what sort of money is changing hands, and how visible sponsored and paid posts ought to be on social media.
Clashes between authenticity and commerce have a long history on social media. A notable example occurred in 2009 when Nestlé courted influential “mommy bloggers”, effectively dividing the community between those happy to be flown to a Nestlé retreat and those who argued Nestlé’s history of unethical business practices in relation to breastfeeding were unforgivable.
More recently, influential YouTube star and fashion blogger Zoe “Zoella” Sugg faced a backlash following the revelations that her best-selling debut novel, Girl Online, was written at least in part by a ghostwriter.
Anthropologist and social media researcher Crystal Abidin has extensively studied and documented Singaporean influencers, noting a range of different practices, from explicit tags to implicit mentioning of brands, to indicate paid or sponsored posts.
Recognising these various tags and indicators requires a level of Instagram literacy that regular viewers will likely develop, but casual audiences could easily miss. Indeed, as Abidin and Mart Ots have argued, this lack of transparent standards can be understood as “the influencer’s dilemma”.
As Singaporean influencers have been around for a decade, some have aged sufficiently to shift from their own sponsored posts to endorsements featuring their children, becoming what Abidin describes as micro-microcelebrities.
Australia also has its own infant influencers, the most visible being PR CEO Roxy Jacenko’s daughter, four year old Instagram star Pixie Curtis. As a second generation influencers emerge, clear social norms about sponsorship and advertising transparency on Instagram become more pressing.
Australian newly launched marketing company Tribe has positioned itself as a broker between influencers – “someone with 5000+ real followers” on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram – and brands.
As Tribe notes, the ACCC does not currently require individuals on social media to reveal paid posts. However, it does recommend influencers add #spon to sponsored posts to flag identify paid content.
The difference between a recommendation and a rule aside, while a quick search reveals some 47,000 Instagram images tagged with #spon, many of these are not sponsored posts.
Of the top #spon tagged posts on Instagram yesterday (9 November), they feature influencers spruiking tea, videogames, resorts, beer and a mobile service provider along with two pets sponsored by a dog show and, as seems fitting, a dog food company.
An explicit marker like #spon would at least make sponsored posts identifiable, but no such norm currently exists, and even Tribe only “strongly recommends” rather than mandates its use.
In a post ironically titled “How To Make $$$ on Social Media”, Essena O'Neill notes that she was charging A$1,000 to feature a product on her Instagram feed, a fact she did not disclose until her recent rejection of her social media modelling past.
O'Neill’s own authenticity might not be helped by the fact that she took to Vimeo – another social media platform – and her own blog, to denounce social media.
This could be read as a clear reminder that social media isn’t inherently morally charged: the value of communication platforms depends in large part on what’s being communicated.
Moreover, as O’Neill’s actions have inspired other Instagram users and influencers to add “honest” captions about the constructedness of their images, if nothing else O’Neill has provoked a very teachable moment, potentially increasing the media literacy of many social media users.
Traditional media industries have long had regulations that ensure advertising and other content are clearly differentiated. While regulating social media is challenging, calling for social media influencers to self-regulate should not be.
Far from damaging their influence, such transparency may just add to what audiences perceive as their authenticity.
Tama Leaver receives funding from Australian Research Council (ARC).
Authors: The Conversation Contributor