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Fake Instagrams are one of the last refuges of the authentic online self

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This week on Why’d You Push That Button, Kaitlyn and I analyze fake Instagrams, aka finstagrams, to find some truth. We talk to a teen, a model, and a reporter to get answers about why people keep a finstagram. I don’t want to spoil anything, but we basically learned that finstagrams are probably the most authentic social media platform, aside from Venmo.

You should know this by now, but you can find us anywhere you find podcasts, including on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play Music, and our RSS feed. Catch up on season 1, too, if you missed out the first time.

We’ve got the audio of this episode below, as well as a transcript with Daily Beast reporter Taylor Lorenz. Check it out.

Ashley: All right. So we’re back, Kaitlyn and I are here with Taylor Lorenz, tech and culture reporter at The Daily Beast.

Kaitlyn: Hi.

Ashley: So, today we’re talking about finstas. And you’ve written about this quite a bit.

Kaitlyn: In some of your reporting about it, I think you called it a micro-community? Which is interesting to me because I think Facebook, by way of Instagram being connected to Facebook, it’s like your entire social graph or whatever. Which is how they killed Snapchat Stories, essentially, right? By being like, they’re so many more people on Instagram. It’s opting out of the Facebook thing and into a micro-community, I guess?

Taylor: Yeah. It’s sort of about creating this space. I think you wrote a really good thing about people moving into these private communities and private internets, almost. I think having a finsta is like having a place where you can still be on the platform, but use it in a different way, and express yourself in a different way and not be under larger scrutiny. Especially, it’s really popular for young people, too, because it’s like they don’t want their parents or teachers to necessarily see everything they think. Also, it’s just not efficient. The Instagram algorithm is constantly changing, and you’re always missing your friends' posts, so if you have a finsta, where it’s just you and your 20 closest friends, you’re not going to miss their posts and you can connect better there.

It’s weird because I think now, in the past two years, there are all these other products, like Snapchat included, where you’re supposed to be this more authentic version of yourself. I think in each place you’re a different type of authentic version of yourself. I think Snapchat, you go to chat and you post things on Snapchat that you wouldn’t post on your finsta, you post stuff on your finsta that you wouldn’t post on your main [Instagram].

Kaitlyn: I’m curious what you think about... does Instagram like that people are doing this? Is this in their best interest? It seems like sequestering yourself off into a tiny version of Instagram, is maybe not great for ads and stuff? I don’t know.

Yeah. I’m always trying to get them to answer how they feel about this, because most people are generating multiple user accounts, so they do have a lot. I think that user number is slightly inflated by the fact that most people usually have multiple Instagram accounts these days. In terms of ads, I’m not sure. If anything, it might be beneficial to them because it is more targeted. You’re almost targeting yourself. That might be my inclination. Also, you have more feeds to advertise it, maybe?

I do think that they have begun to recognize it more and realize that people want different methods of connecting on the app. They’re about to launch the Instagram DM, revamp the messaging system. I wonder if people will use finstas less as they move to more group messaging-type situations on that.

Ashley: I feel like that’s my substitute. I have group chats where I send funny pictures or whatever. Or even selfies or something of myself. Yesterday, I sent a private DM of just a story. What could have been a story on my finsta, instead I just sent it in DM. Sort of like Snapchat.

Yeah. I think that that scratches the itch of what you want. That thing where you want to share something with a group privately. The one benefit to the finsta versus the group chat, it’s not like everyone has to subscribe to everyone else’s updates. Like a group chat, you all are getting it, but your finsta, I have a friend from camp growing up, I have a couple of friends from DC that follow. It’s not like they’re all in a group chat. It’s much more cohesive unit, where everyone has to buy in. So the finsta is just like another special place.

Kaitlyn: To me, it seems like a blog, or almost just like a newish version of Tumblr almost. Because it’s so small, and also, like, philosophically Facebook is so invested in true identities. Facebook as a company is anti-anonymity. It’s just weird to me that it’s existing under that umbrella of the biggest anti-anonymous corporation in the world.

Yeah. It’s funny because I think that that’s a hindrance to them. I do think in order for a platform to grow and thrive, you need to let people express different areas of them, and not have it tied to this real-life persona where everything has to be under this umbrella of your real-life persona. I think Instagram’s a more evolved platform, and I think in a way it thinks about identity, maybe? Or the way it allows people to express identity.

Kaitlyn: You wrote this piece about niche memes, which I think is the coolest use case of finsta. It counts as a use case, right?

Yeah, so go on Instagram, search for the hashtag niche meme, and the aesthetic of the memes is so hard to even describe. Basically, they’re these accounts that people will create. So you’ll create a separate niche meme account, you would create a finsta or something, and it’s like an online diary. A lot of the memes themselves look like a variation on the starter pack memes, if you’re familiar with that.

And basically, it’s like, “what I ate at school today,” and it will be this bright yellow background with a bag of Twix, and literally what that person ate at school. And then the caption will be, “Spanish class sucked,” or whatever. It’s like a diary. It’s like a Live Journal type of thing, almost, but more visual. They’re like a finsta in the sense that it’s like this extremely hyper-personal outlet where you post about your life and your thoughts and stuff.

Kaitlyn: You asked a lot of teens why they love niche memes, right?

It’s like this close group of friends. A finsta is almost like you don’t follow anybody that you would know, and you’re basically going on there to meet or develop this very hyper-specific community. Each meme that you make, like what I ate for school, or that... I’m trying to think of other examples. What happened at my friends' slumber party last night. And they’ll be popcorn, this, this. A girl fell down the stairs or whatever. The point is to make the meme so hyper-specific that almost nobody would relate to it, and then when somebody does relate to it, you have this intense connection with them because they relate to this hyper-specific thing that happened to you or experience that you’re going through. You end up developing a community around that.

I hate the word hack, or whatever, but I think it’s a way to find a community. It’s really hard to just like find people on Instagram that are like you. You can search for people who like similar things than you, whatever, but these kids, actually middle schoolers, it’s such an awkward time and you feel like you don’t fit in at all. Nobody’s experiencing exactly what you’ve experienced, so when you make this super, super, super hyper-specific account and then you find that it resonates with people, it makes you feel, I guess not alone and you have friends on the internet.

Ashley: With finsta, is the point to not be discovered?

Yeah. Well, I think finstas in general, is not to be discovered by the larger world. Like your parents, teachers, whatever. Friendships that are not as close, but your close friends will know about your finsta.

Whereas niche memes, most girls I talk to, even their closest friends don’t really follow their niche memes necessarily. It’s like this very personal thing that is just made for you. And your friends with other niche mimers.

Ashley: How do they find each other? Is it through hashtags?

It’s through hashtags, and also just through searching. I mean, they generally are friends with some of their close friends, like a couple. It’s a much tighter circle, I think than a finsta, even. A lot of it’s through the hashtag. A lot of it’s through searching similar accounts, or stuff will come up on the explorer page. It’s almost all driven through the explorer page in terms of discovery of new accounts. When I was writing that article, I was liking a lot of niche memes and it’s like, “Eek, my explorer page.”

Kaitlyn: I don’t know how nitty-gritty we want to get with design stuff, but I know you were bringing up the Archive feature.

Ashley: Yeah, because I have a private. Well, I’ve considered going public. The Archive feature for me, when it came out, was a really big deal. And I’m wondering, we can only speculate obviously, Instagram’s not here, they didn’t respond to my email.

Kaitlyn: Sorry about my emails.

Ashley: So, we’re going to speculate here. But do you feel like the Archive could be a reaction to finstas?

I don’t know. I guess. The thing is at the end of the day, and I’m speaking for people that have public accounts, I think if you have a private account, it’s a little... it’s like a medium ground.

Ashley: Right.

It’s like you’re almost... It’s not quite finsta, but it’s not quite public. I don’t know. I still think the Archive is a game-changer in the sense that you can remove portions of your life and you don’t have to delete them, or you can remove things that you don’t want the broader public to see, but the point is you’re still... I feel it’s more who you’re curating for, and if you have a public feed, you’re curating for a specific audience, which is the public versus curating for a small audience. So, the Archive, I don’t know. Do you mean viewing your archive?

Ashley: I guess, I mean it in the sense of like, you can just take things away. And that to me is such a game-changer in all ways. I feel even, finstas it sounds like you just let things lie. It’s like, well we’re not looking back on that. I don’t know, maybe people delete from their finstas.

I think people delete from their finstas all the time because they post so frequently and they’ll just go back and delete sometimes. But, it’s more fluid, I think, than your main thing where it’s, you know, your main Instagram account. You take a little bit of time. You probably cropped it, you probably put a little effort into it. Finstas are just like you’re spamming stuff out.

Ashley: Well, yeah, that’s the thing. It’s like recognizing that we change as people. And I kept everything on Instagram, all the photos I really wanted to keep, but now I don’t have to go through and save them.

Did you archive a lot?

Ashley: Oh, yeah. Because I’m also thinking about going public, so I’m like, “Okay. I have to get rid of that.” Nothing like crazy, but we can talk about this after the broadcast.

I think it’s interesting to watch how people are using Instagram Stories on their finstas because it’s this extra level. First of all, Instagram Stories is supposed to be more like “real and in the moment” already, so to have that on your main feed, is obviously one thing, but then to have it on your finsta... I see a lot of people using it as almost a public chat. People will link to their Sarahah, an anonymous question app.

Yeah, and polls and stuff like that. I feel it’s like the Instagram Stories is like where you go to engage with your finsta followers in a more direct way, I guess. And people have been posting so many more text updates. I feel like it’s this mini-feed of real-time chatting with each other, but a synchronized, because you’re watching someone’s stuff, you take a poll, you respond to their story with their story. I don’t know. It’s just interesting. It’ll be interesting to see as Instagram DM develops, what impact that will have on finstas and also what impact that will have on Instagram Stories and how it will change the way people use it, I guess. I don’t know.

Ashley: I wonder if Instagram wants to kill the finsta.