It all began with a photograph of myself at a fraternity rush event, riding a shirtless pledge as if he were a horse (with an Indiana Jones-esque cowboy hat to boot). Being the millennial that I am, I immediately thought to myself, “This needs to be shared with my closest friends, acquaintances, and that really funny guy that I only met one time but who always comments on my Instagrams.” Sending the photo to one of my multiple group chats with friends felt cumbersome and awkward. However, the photograph was much too risque to post on Instagram or Facebook, for the eyes of family, love interests, frenemies and potential employers. Consequently, my finsta was born. I was now free to share my victory lap in the triple crown of fraternity hazing.
Urban Dictionary defines a Finstagram, or finsta, as “a mixture of Fake & Instagram. People, usually girls, get a second Instagram account along with their real instagrams, rinstagrams, to post any pictures or videos they desire. The photos or videos posted are usually funny or embarrassing.” The phenomenon is not exclusive to Penn; in fact, finstas are widespread enough to have gained coverage by publications such as Tech Insider, Elle, and The New York Times.
Kayla* created her finsta freshman year as a way to post pictures without worrying about her online image. “I think with my regular Instagram getting likes or followers is a source of validation, whereas on my finsta, I don't worry about it at all because I know I'm only sharing it with my closest friends. I'm not trying to prove anything when I post on my finsta, I'm just trying to share funny photos.”
A side-by-side look at a user's Instagram (left) vs her Finstagram (right)
It's no secret that for most, Instagram offers a carefully curated display of photographs edited and filtered to “perfection”, accompanied by a carefully thought out caption. A finsta offers refuge from the constant horse race of accumulating more followers and likes. It serves as a space where, ironically enough, users can actually be “real.” Tellingly, when asked about how much time was spent preparing a finsta post as compared to a regular post, one student responded, “A lot less time. A lot.”
Finsta content varies by user, but almost always features photographs deemed too inappropriate for other forms of social media. Every student surveyed for this article had posted at least one photograph explicitly showing them drinking alcohol on their finsta, and most students had several photographs depicting or heavily implying the use of alcohol, drugs and/or lewd behavior. When asked how strangers might perceive them if presented with their finstas, students responded similarly. “They would think I’m an alcoholic,” replied one male student. “They would probably think I blackout every night. They would maybe call the police and also wonder how I haven't yet died of alcohol poisoning.” Meanwhile, the public profiles of these students remain more or less exemplary.
The safety of finsta lies in its exclusivity. Whereas a regular Instagram may have hundreds or even thousands of followers, finstas are typically private and have a following in the double or low triple digits. Followers are instilled with some degree of trust; the poster is counting on them not to screenshot the images or share them with others. For this reason, most users only allow close friends or the people they party with to follow. When too many people gain access to a finsta, users are forced to censor their posts– which defeats the whole purpose. Last year, Kayla realized she had allowed too many people to follow her and promptly deleted her Finstagram. “There were too many private things on there and I didn’t want that many people seeing it.” She now has a new account with only a handful of followers.
For users, a finsta offers an opportunity to reclaim social media, without the pressure to present an idealized image of their lives. It allows them to say, “Screw perfection, here’s a look at my life in all of its absurdity.” However, finstas may come with their own standards. As one student admitted, “On my finsta I want people to comment and say how funny I am.” Whereas Instagram serves as a constant measure of who has the whitest smile, most appetizing brunch, and most scenic vacation spot, for some, finsta is a measure of wit. Social media, it seems, will always be a competition, regardless of intent or form.
Nearly everyone surveyed agreed that neither their Finsta nor their real Instagram account would give a stranger an accurate depiction of their real-world lives. As one student remarked, “Social media is not real life.” But, ironically enough, a fake Instagram offers a slightly more realistic look.
*Names have been changed.