09/11/2015 5:29 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST

Social Media Isn't Interaction -- It's Performance

What's different about the online space is that there is no other way to express or communicate oneself. We must perform and we must consume -- the medium itself allows for no other form of engagement.

Essena ONeill

In a tearful, straight-to-camera monologue, former Instagram star Essena O'Neill declared her revolutionary message -- social media isn't real.

That may not come as a surprise to you, but it might to the half million young people who followed Essena on Instagram, Tumblr and YouTube.

"Young people can find out the reality behind the perfect Instagram life. . . Nothing is perfect about spending every single day making your life look perfect online. That is not real."

It's easy to forget how revolutionary a message this will be to young people. I grew up (just) before social media existed and can vaguely recall interaction before likes, shares and retweets. But not everyone does. So voices from within that milieu need to speak out, and it pays to listen without cynicism.

O'Neill tells us what we already know. 'Social' media is anything but. It claims to transport ordinary human interactions into a digital age, but what transpires on social media isn't interaction at all -- it's performance.

We carefully select what article to share, which status to like and which photos to share. We tell a story of ourselves not as we are or even like to be seen, but as others expect us to appear. When Facebook (unethically) manipulated its users emotions it found people who see more happy posts themselves post happier content, and vice versa. Our online activity is a reflection of the social media hive.

We do this because social media is built on consumerism.

We consume the stories and images of others as though they were mere images rather than aspects of another person's lived experience. We block or unfollow dissentious or annoying voices, because suddenly people can be switched off.

Some of this was happening before social media exploded into our lives. But what's different about the online space is that there is no other way to express or communicate oneself. We must perform and we must consume -- the medium itself allows for no other form of engagement.

And the consequences of this slip back into our everyday social behaviour. As someone who writes and commissions pieces for online publication, I'm shocked when I see articles with more social 'likes' than readers. People share opinions they haven't read. It's not about the idea but the appearance of having had one.

Social media's pervasive illusion has blurred the boundaries between the digital and the real -- and we're starting to see slippage.

Where to from here? I don't think the solution is to log off entirely, nor do I think it's possible to develop forms of social media that allow for more authentic kinds of interaction. What we need is to consciously decide what place social media should have in our lives rather than accepting its current ubiquity.

In what ways can social media support or enhance our individual and communal values? It's a question each of us can answer separately, but first we need to ask the question. That's especially true for young people who haven't known a world without social media.

Initiatives in schools aim to teach children about online bullying, privacy and even sexual expression -- perhaps it's time to encourage students to examine the inherent value of the medium itself. To make social media work for them, rather than seeing more and more kids striving for online "impressions".

We could probably do more to counteract the universal power of social media as well. Apps that require you to log in via social media, businesses who reward their social media audience more than other customers -- even television programs that offer national publicity to tweets or comments further the infiltration of the online into our lives.

O'Neill is right -- social media doesn't represent reality. But if we're not careful, in time it just might.


Matthew Beard is a moral philosopher at The Ethics Centre, an independent, not-for-profit organisation focused on positioning ethics at the centre of everyday life.