Essena O’Neill and the online cult of fake

14 Nov 2015

Essena O’Neill. Image via YouTube

The power and hubris of global brands, the virtual nature of the web and the insecurities of teenage girls perfectly incubated 18-year-old Queensland model Essena O’Neill’s social media meltdown and its aftermath.

The repercussions have included other Instagram stars admitting similar motivations and temptations, the promotion of hashtags such as #flauntyourflaws and #socialmediaisnotreallife, claims that social media is so false that even the meltdown was staged, and the brands who sponsored her in the first place getting out of town as quickly as their legs could carry them.

For those who missed the detail of the social media storm, O’Neill recorded a YouTube video for her 600,000 followers, explaining that the pressure of endlessly looking perfect and projecting an idyllic lifestyle was too much for her and she was consequently quitting Instagram and YouTube.

O’Neill’s use of video social media (YouTube) to earnestly inform me that social media is false had sent my internal irony meter into its own very particular form of meltdown. Her follow-up request on written social media (her blog) asking for donations for her new movement #letsbegamechangers (and to help pay her rent) recalibrates my irony meter but pushes the cynic counter back up to eleven.

But the cult of fake and the pursuit of online credibility is not a new phenomenon.

Credibility and action

Perhaps this particular commentator’s response is simply showing his age, but upon reading about events, it’s hard not to be reminded of a decade-old research paper by BJ Fogg and his colleagues at the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab, Prominence-Interpretation Theory: Explaining How People Assess Credibility, with findings that appear as relevant in 2015 as they did back in 2002 when the paper was written.

The basis for the work is so based on common sense as to be self-evident, however, Fogg argues convincingly that it only seems obvious once it has been revealed. Prominence-Interpretation Theory suggests that two things happen when people assess credibility online; firstly, the user notices something (prominence) and secondly the user makes a judgement based on it (interpretation). Both of these need to happen for the user to assess and act.

And so the link is established between credibility and action. In short, if a website owner wants to motivate a user to act, credibility (defined as the quality of being believable or worthy of trust) must be established. What does Fogg have to say about how this can be achieved?

His study involving 2,500 participants sought to understand factors that influence credibility. By some distance the design and appearance of the site was the single biggest determinant of trust.

Number two on the list related to the “information design or structure of the site” with “information focus” listed third. I can hear Steve Jobs’ words ringing in my ears: “Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”

The remaining trust factor elements are dominated by the quality of site content; including perceived usefulness of the information; accuracy of the information; brand recognition; reputation of the site; the tone of the writing; quality of website functionality; customer experience, past experiences and clarity of information and readability.

‘The design and appearance of the site was the single biggest determinant of trust’

These core credibility determinants outperform even third-party trust marks, which in turn were the subject of a Baymard Institute 2013 study, which sought to understand the relationship between site credibility and trust marks.

Of the 2,520 responses garnered, 1,286 responded “don’t know or no preference” when asked which trust marks give them greatest confidence. Of those who responded, the most trusted e-commerce site trust brands in order were:

  1. Norton
  2. McAfee
  3. TRUSTe
  4. BBB
  5. Thawte
  6. Trustwave
  7. GeoTrust

Again, crucially, all trust marks came second to the factors outlined in Fogg’s seminal research in 2002.

I had the good fortune to make (most of) my teenage mistakes in relative privacy and, whilst O’Neill’s public contradictions are an easy target, when it comes to online trust we do well to look in the mirror and establish credibility by giving the user what they wanted in the first place.

Gareth Dunlop owns and runs Fathom, a user-experience consultancy which helps ambitious organisations get the most from their website and internet marketing by viewing the world from the perspective of their customers. Specialist areas include user-testing, usability and customer journey planning, web accessibility and integrated online marketing. Clients include Three, Ordnance Survey Ireland, PSNI, Permanent TSB and Tesco Mobile.