Teen angst and the authenticity of influence
A view from Nathan McDonald

Teen angst and the authenticity of influence

After accumulating hundreds of thousands of social media followers across various platforms, Essena O'Neill has caught the attention of the press by dramatically denouncing social media... using social media to get her message across.

Essena is not the first 19-year-old to have an identity crisis, but her position as a successful influencer and the nature of her rant speaks volumes about the conflicting forces at work on today's teens.

In some ways it also reflects the evolution of social media - after years of modelling, building up followers and chasing (quite literally in this case) "vanity metrics" such as likes and views, Essena is now seeking authenticity, true engagement and a more profound meaning from social media. Sound familiar?

On the one hand, we know how much more important and influential the new breed of self-created social media celebrity is to the teen audience than more "traditional" celebrities. They are more real, speak with more honesty and are much admired for taking control of their own destiny. On the other hand, influencers crave meaning and authenticity in their own lives, and with their own values. In Essena's case, these could no longer co-exist.

When there's an unseen commercial arrangement behind an image, honesty is undermined. By editing her Instagram posts to reveal the cash that was paid to model clothes, Essena points to one of the big challenges for brands in working with influencers: disclosure.

Many countries, including Australia where Essena is based, have laws requiring disclosure. If there's no "review" element of the product in the post itself then it may fall into a legal grey area.

But brands working with influencers should consider how an honest approach to a partnership carries less risk and is potentially more beneficial in the long run – as Kim Kardashian and Diclegis discovered. These days, most consumers are savvy enough to know that an endorsement very rarely comes for free.

People have been carefully constructing their identities in social situations throughout history, but I'm sure Essena's teen-angst rant describing the stress and starvation involved in achieving the perfect selfie will speak to other teens and pre-teens more powerfully than anyone in a newspaper or classroom. Her story of striving for likes, followers and views from 12 years of age, and evaluating her own worth from these metrics reveals just how powerful these forces are.

This could simply be a stunt to attract enough attention to re-launch Essena as an ethically-minded influencer. Cynics point out that she launched her own website off the back of this publicity. Either way, the questions it has raised for those of us working with influencers on behalf of brands, and for those who are responsible for industry guidelines and regulations, are no less important.

Both authenticity and honesty, not just when it comes to social media, but also within a brand's overall marketing strategy, have never been more crucial.

Nathan McDonald is a co-founder and global managing partner at We Are Social