This Just In: Social Authenticity

Did the coronavirus force us into an authentic form of social media?

This Just In: Social Authenticity
Photos from Instagram

Did The Coronavirus Force Us Into An Authentic Form Of Social Media?

Five years ago, Essena O’Neill, an Australian teenager, earned $2,000 per post on Instagram. More than 600,000 followers looked at O’Neill for advice and inspiration. Then she abruptly quit social media.

Deleting over 2,000 pictures, O’Neill said social media was “contrived perfection made to get attention.” She ignited a firestorm about the authenticity of Instagram and influencers on the platform.

Today, social media disillusion isn’t big news. There are countless “why I quit social media, and you should too” stories online. Instead of advocating quitting social media outright, I think it’s time we collectively change how we use the tools provided us.

When social media first popped onto the scene, nearly two decades ago, it was inherently social. MySpace, Friendster, and the early iterations of Facebook were designed to leverage our existing social networks and connect each other with newly developed digital tools. It was simple and it worked. And then the advertising people got involved.

All of a sudden, we were encouraged to expand our networks, to follow more people, brands, celebrities — the more accounts the better. As we followed more accounts, advertisers gained more data and figured out how to target us with more specific ads. Before we knew it, our once truly social media became a vast wasteland of highly-targeted ad-served content.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. The growing cries of social media dissolution once voiced by Essena O’Neill are now louder than ever. As the coronavirus separates us physically, we continue to crave human interaction. Thankfully, we have access to tools that enable digital connection — we just don’t want to wade through streams of ads and machine-curated content to get to the people we actually care about.

I’ve always been someone who highly curates my digital world. I strictly limit the number of people I follow on each app (typically less than 100 per network) and I often revisit my digital archives, removing content that no longer stands the test of time. Last year I deleted 25,000 tweets (90% of my archive). It was oddly cathartic. Yet, even with the high level of attention I afford my own social feeds, they can still feel overwhelming. No matter how much control I try to assert, the advertisers are still holding the reins.

What we need is another social media revolution, an “anti-social” revolution if you will. One where tools are provided like they were in the original days of the medium. Tools where the services and streams are curated by users and not influenced by advertisers.

There are some services showing promise in this space. While none are currently perfect, it is nice to have options:


Substack is a mix of old-school blogging and new-school email marketing. Basically Medium meets Mailchimp.

What’s great about Substack is choosing specifically who’s subscriptions you accept. It’s the most personalized content feed available right now, which is quite exhilarating.

IMessage, FaceTime, Zoom, Houseparty

What do all of these apps have in common? They’re feed-less.

These are the ultimate social network, completely devoid of advertising influence. Select the people you want to connect with, and enjoy their company. No frills, no curation, just connection.

The future of social media looks more and more like these apps, and I am all for it.

Discord, Slack, Facebook Groups

These apps connect people over common interests and facilitate discussion. While they are network-based, the conversation is contained and led by the community, not influenced by advertising.

Notice Facebook is included in this list. They clearly know where the market is heading and are trying to pivot accordingly. Sidebar ads still show in Groups, but otherwise, the experience is vastly different from the rest of Facebook.

Social media connects each other and gives us a glimpse into the real lives we all live, mess and all. I don’t know about you, but I long for an ad and curation free version of social media.

I’m not quitting social media, but Essena O’Neill was right. We deserve more realistic social media connections.

Justin Cox Justin Cox

Justin Cox is a donut-loving, word-writing, nonprofit consultant based in Orlando. He also runs The Writing Cooperative on Medium. Come say hello!