Why Having a Finsta Might Be a Really Bad Idea
by Emma Sarran Webster
Once upon a time, social media was a space where ~the youth~ could go to digitally share their lives with one another away from the prying eyes of their pesky parents, teachers, and bosses. That time has long since passed. Now, all of those “elders” have accounts themselves, and pretty much everyone is hyperaware of the message their online presence sends. And while each social media platform has its unique characteristics, many would agree that when it’s time to present the absolute best version of yourself, Instagram is where you go. “Instagram has evolved,” says Kaitlyn McNab, a 20-year-old junior at New York University. “Everyone’s Insta is not just a public photo album, which is what it was intended to be, but it’s more so a brand.”
That’s right: These days, every single person with an Instagram account is a brand. Users may not all be selling products, but they’re selling themselves — to parents, to schools, to hiring managers, and to all of the potential followers out there. “As I’m growing my career and personal brand…I basically just want my Insta to be a clean representation of myself that I can control,” Aamina Khan, a 22-year-old who works in social media for BuzzFeed, says. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t share an unfiltered version of herself anywhere. That’s where finstas — or fake Instagrams — come in.
Why Have a Finsta?
Finstas are private, under-the-radar secondary accounts where people can go to let loose, digitally speaking, without getting in trouble (or at least that’s the goal), risking their futures, or muddying up their carefully curated “rinsta” (real Instagram, generally referred to as “Insta”) feeds. It’s ironic, really: The rinstas are more fake, and the finstas are more real. “If you had a really shitty day, and you feel really down, and all you want to do is just eat three large fries at McDonald’s, you can’t really say that on your regular Instagram, but you could post it on your finsta,” McNab explains. “It’s another outlet that protects your image and your brand. […] It’s kind of this secret bond that you share with other people. You’re essentially saying, ‘This is the real me that I’m sharing on finsta instead of the part of me that you get to know on my personal Instagram.’”
McNab’s own finsta is made up of several types of posts, including pictures she deemed unworthy for rinsta, pictures and videos from parties, birthday shoutouts to friends, screenshots of text message and email conversations she wants to covertly discuss, and “random” photos with lengthy captions about things going on in her life.
Khan also has a similar divide between her rinsta and finsta. “Things I share on my regular Instagram are things that everyone shares — pictures of me in scenic backgrounds, or just my coffee; basically everything you imagine [is] quote-unquote Instagrammable,” she says. “But on my finsta, I will post some ugly selfie and comment if something is particularly on my mind, or sometimes I’ll share personal life updates. I know all of my most important friends are there, so I can share pretty openly.”
And while people can (and do) maintain finstas for lighthearted reasons (Khan notes that some use them as meme accounts), they largely represent the clouds to rinsta’s sunshine. “It’s kind of like their diary when they want to complain about the world,” says Sarah S., a counselor at a Chicagoland high school who has become well-acquainted with finstas through her students. Teens’ rinsta posts, she says, feature them “in a completely [filtered] state with their friends, having so much fun. That’s the only thing they put on their Instagram — wonderful, happy, ‘look how great my life is’ and ‘look how pretty I am’ images. Then their finstas are no-filter photos of themselves, and it’s all emotion.”
In fact, that’s the whole reason Khan created her finsta account, which she says she did when she was at a “weird place with [her] mental health.” “I felt there was nowhere for me to really talk about things I was upset about; things I was going through,” she says. “My insta was already highly curated, so I couldn’t really talk about anything weird or things that were upsetting me because it already looked very good. I guess I had a pretty strong attachment to the way my insta already looked, so that’s why I created a finsta.”
When Finstas Get Dark
Khan has had the finsta account since summer 2016 and still uses it for that reason, noting that she typically posts once or twice a week, but “when I’m more depressed, definitely a lot more.”
“It’s basically a way to update people who you know are concerned about you, but [without] directly speaking to them,” she says. “Because sometimes I want to express that I’m depressed or something, but I don’t actually want people to reach out to me or be like, ‘Hey, are you okay?’ I want them to know this is going on in my life; and by them liking it, they can acknowledge that they’ve seen it or they know what’s up without being too direct. It’s kind of like letting people know, but from a finsta it’s more comfortable.”
When her friends see those kinds of posts, Khan says they’ll typically comment (perhaps with an emoji) and only reach out IRL if it’s “something more serious.” “I think the culture with finstas [is] if you post something on finsta, it’s because you don’t want necessarily an influx of people reaching out,” she says. “You just want to say what you’re feeling, and for people who follow you to acknowledge [it].”
Some finsta users take it even further. “We also see it a lot with students who post self-harm talk or suicidal talk,” Sarah says. “They may post things like, ‘So-and-so said this to me, I don’t want to be around anymore; the world would be better off if I weren’t here.’” But while Sarah says those types of finstas are “always brought to our attention because people become worried,” and Khan says her posts have helped her feel less isolated and “not ashamed to talk about it,” there are risks that come with this kind of social media behavior.
“Part of what’s difficult about using finsta as an outlet to talk about what you’re going through and feeling depressed is when that’s put out in the public forum, is there anyone that can really help with that?” Deanna Pledge, Ph. D., a psychologist who specializes in adolescent and child development, says. “Or is the person expecting a response even though they’re ambivalent about it? […] I think it can be dangerous in that regard, if there [are] some mixed feelings about whether or not somebody will reach out, even [if the poster says] they don’t want anyone to. Somebody could get hurt, if that’s what they were aiming for, because nobody will stop them in most cases.” If you tell someone in person, over the phone, or even via one-on-one text that you’re feeling depressed or that you had a horrible experience today, that person is most likely going to respond. They’ll engage in a conversation, ask you questions, and make sure you know they’re there for you — responses that you may have, deep down, been hoping for even if you started the conversation by saying you were “fine” or that you didn’t “want to talk about it.” If you share the same feelings or experience on finsta, though, you’re less likely to have that immediate, supportive response. The people you want to hear from may not even see your post, they may see it and assume others have already reached out to you, they may intend to reach out but ultimately forget, or they may be uncertain about whether or not you really want a response at all — and without intending to, can deepen the hurt you’re feeling.
Finsta and Friendships
Even outside of those most serious posts, finstas do seem to have a unique effect on relationships among friends and how they interact with each other. With “traditional” social media, you can glean a certain amount of detail about your friends’ lives, but more on the level of, “They went to brunch this week,” “They’re goofing off between classes,” “They really enjoyed this article,” “They hated this week’s episode of Riverdale,” or “They got a really perfect sunset shot on vacation.” If you want to know what’s really going on with them, though, you have to actually have a conversation — even if it’s just via text. With finstas, though, users like McNab can keep fully up-to-date on their best friends just by turning on post notifications. “Some friends [will] post things on finsta and not tell me in person,” she says. “So, in order to keep up with what’s going on in their lives, I have to check their finstas.” And that’s the case with everyone from people she sees IRL every single day (like her roommates) to friends she hasn’t seen in a while (like during the summer when everyone’s back in their hometowns).
That said, not all of McNab’s friends actually have finsta accounts — it’s just easier to maintain relationships with the ones who do. “I don’t even have to do the emotional work of asking them [what’s going on] or talking to them, which is kind of strange, but I feel up-to-date with them and very in-tune with what they’re going through,” she says. “We’ll still talk about it in person, but I already kind of know what’s going on with them because they’re willing to share it on finsta. […] With the friends that don’t have finsta, I’ll just do the emotional work and I’ll say, ‘Hey, how are you, what’s going on, fill me in, keep me up-to-date’ and all that stuff.”
But while keeping up with certain friends almost solely over finsta may seem like a simple convenience, Pledge warns that there could be pitfalls. “There isn’t the level of personal accountability, or personal responsibility, or energy that face-to-face or real-time interaction requires,” she says. “[They’re] keeping up with what’s going on, but it doesn’t take as much from [them] emotionally to do that. I’m just not sure it’s the healthiest way to do that.”
In fact, Pledge says, these kinds of relationship habits could foster something called the bystander effect, which suggests that one person is less likely to step in and help another if there are other people around. In finsta terms, that could happen when one person shares a post about her bad day and none of her friends respond with a DM, text message, or even phone call because they assume someone else probably did. “It doesn’t really help in terms of supporting one another or feeling a sense of community,” Pledge says. “It can lead more to a sense of isolation.”
As if that all didn’t sound emotionally complex enough, the personal, vulnerable posts are only one (albeit prominent) characteristic of finsta. These private accounts also tend to be heavy on gossiping, shit-talking, and thinly veiled attacks. “This is how they bully,” Sarah says of her high school students. “They post what I deem passive-aggressive things to others.” Many posts, she says, will feature a seemingly random image with an accompanying “rant.” “They’ll type up this long thing saying, ‘I hate it when people do this, this, and this’ or, ‘The worst thing is when people think they’re better than you,’ and they’ll go into this comment that’s directly aimed at someone else without saying their name. People end up screenshotting it and bringing it to us [counselors] on the regular.”
And on finsta, people don’t hold back. “At least 25% of the time when finsta is involved, it’s really hurtful stuff — inappropriate things to say to a human, and lots of curse words and hateful language,” Sarah says. But it’s not a one-way deluge of hate — the people who get hurt do the hurting, too, she points out, recounting the story of a student who came to her office “hysterically crying” after getting in a verbal fight with a friend at lunch. When speaking with Sarah, the student showed her “derogatory, horrible things” that friend subsequently posted on his finsta. But when Sarah suggested talking to the friend’s counselor, the student stopped her, admitting that she also had published her share of negative, hurtful posts as well.
While Sarah’s take on all of this is admittedly from an outside perspective, McNab confirms finsta is a breeding ground for drama. “A lot of the…reasons why people make finstas so private is so they can talk shit,” she says. Aside from direct(ish) attacks on friends, McNab says finsta is often used to gossip about others with (or really, to) friends. You “can post a screenshot of the weird guy in your lecture that keeps texting you about going out for a date, but you don’t want to text him back, so you post screenshots of that,” she says.
The nature of all of these posts means, in general, people like to keep their finsta followings small. “There are a lot of people who I’m friends with in the real world — or they’re my acquaintances — but I don’t accept their follow requests on finsta, because it’s a really intimate thing for me,” says Khan, who says she has about 30 or 40 finsta followers compared to her 1,000 or so rinsta followers.
Similarly, McNab says she has about 43 finsta followers compared to approximately 2,100 on rinsta. And she only follows a small number of people herself. “It’s kind of like its own mini community,” she says. “It’s people you feel are worthy enough to see this other side of you.”
Keeping Finsta Exclusive
And it’s hard work to keep that community exclusive, too. Both McNab and Khan have seemingly random usernames and associated pictures, don’t link their finstas to any of their other social media accounts, and only accept followers they know IRL. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. McNab says she only follows other finstas; she and her friends all avoid following each other’s rinstas to avoid their finstas popping up in mutual friends’ Instagram-generated suggestions. And while her parents know she has a finsta, she goes to great lengths to keep them from actually finding it. In fact, after a friend’s post notification popped up while her mom was using her phone, McNab “immediately” changed her username and profile image as a precaution.
She says that many people do “finsta purges,” if their follower lists are getting too big. That process can also contribute to the drama — but there are ways around that, too. “I have another friend who recently made an entirely new finsta while the other one was still up because the community of people that were on the old one would start to gossip if they knew she removed them as followers,” McNab says. “She made an entirely new one that they don’t know about, that her other closest friends know about.”
But while finsta may be more private than Insta; it is still, after all, the internet — and nothing is really private on the internet. McNab, for her part, recognizes that. “Finsta is kind of an illusion,” she says. Regardless of how small your follower count is, there’s always the possibility that whatever you post could get screenshotted and seen by the wrong person, or taken the wrong way. That’s what keeps the steady stream of distraught students coming to Sarah’s office. In some cases, teens will come to her to discuss drama they’re having with friends and show her supplemental finsta evidence. “They’ll say, ‘Oh my god and look what she posted’ or, ‘Look what so-and-so screenshotted and sent to me because she already blocked me because she knew I would see it.’”
She often encourages people to take conversations offline; which, while still could be emotionally charged, may be better in the long-run. As Pledge points out, once something is memorialized on the internet, it doesn’t exactly go away. “It’s ever-present, so it makes it even more difficult for people to bounce back or to maybe set it aside and not be affected by it,” she says.
It’s risky even if you’re not talking smack about others, too. While Pledge recognizes that simply sharing your own deepest, darkest feelings on finsta can be beneficial as a form of catharsis, it’s not the same as writing in a literal diary. “Others may become aware of some of those intimate thoughts…and I think that can become damaging,” she says. “If others are aware of negative thoughts or even self-harm, it could be used against the person who is writing it, or the awareness of those thoughts [and] feelings may change the way friends interact with that person.”
And the “ever-present” aspect can also cause regret later down the road with these kinds of posts, too, “particularly if the individual who feels they may have ‘over-shared’ has worked through those concerns while others may continue to act as if that is the person’s current reality,” Pledge says. So, you may have moved on from your depression or that horrible experience you had with your ex; but that doesn’t mean your followers have, and they may continue to treat you in certain ways because of it. For example, perhaps they leave you out of conversations about sensitive subjects because they don’t think you’re “ready” to hear them.
And of course, beyond the politics of friendships and the “leaking” of your emotions beyond your intended audience, there’s the inherent risk that the content you share on an account created specifically as a haven away from parents, teachers, and employers can still get in their hands, too. McNab says that’s why she specifically never posts anything that could put her career or schooling in danger if it got out. But not everyone has that foresight. In fact, in the same month, a Georgia State University soccer player, Natalia Martinez, was suspended by her team and withdrew from the school after her finsta post that contained the n-word went public, and a University of Alabama student, Harley Barber, was expelled after posting two finsta videos of herself using racial slurs went public.
“[Barber] definitely was feeding into the illusion that finsta is some secret protected world that no one would see,” McNab says. “But it just goes to show you that you truly can’t just say anything even though finsta has the illusion of privacy.” The lesson? It’s an application of the age-old adage, “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is” along with the reminders to be wary of “get rich quick” schemes and “easy ways out.” If you want your private thoughts to remain private, your best bet is to keep them to yourself. If you don’t want to be perceived as someone who talks smack, your best bet is to simply not talk smack. Finsta may have more privacy than traditional insta, but it doesn’t provide fail-proof protection for your Internet antics — that simply doesn’t exist.