Sophomore Chloe O’Connor carefully selected the two best photos for an Instagram post in October celebrating her 20th birthday.
She’s smiling for both pictures, fingers thrown up to form the number 20 in one of the images. Behind the scenes, these images were chosen carefully from 24 different options.
Usually, the unflattering photos would be deleted or stay forever hidden in her camera roll, but one image, taken later in the night, was given a second chance at life.
The flash is too bright, her motion is blurred and her eyes are half closed. This kind of presentation is much different than that of a birthday girl perfectly put together.
“They’re both versions of me," O’Connor said. "Just, like, one is more structured.”
This haphazard picture wasn't posted on O'Connor's main Instagram account, but it did make it onto a secondary account called a Finsta.
Finstas, or fake Instagram accounts, are a growing trend of private social media accounts where younger generations of users can step away from their carefully constructed online brand and post some of the less glamorous aspects of their lives.
Finsta accounts function like semi-private online diaries where users accept those who they consider close friends. Here, they can pair haphazard selfies and memes with long, ranting complaints and thoughts that are less filtered than social media usually allows.
They differ vastly from Rinstas – real Instagram accounts – which are more likely to be public and have more followers.
At last count, O'Connor's main account has about 2,000 followers. Her Finsta only has 134.
Finsta usernames and profile photos usually hide the account owner’s identity. Biographies are obscure. Follower numbers often range somewhere between 20 to 150 for the same people who have into the upper hundreds or even thousands of followers on their main Instagram.
Media School professor Amy Gonzales, who studies the psychology of social media, said users rely on the attention they receive from their posts, and Finstas allow close friends to build bonds and support each other's bad moments as well as good ones.
“We have that in real life, so it just gets simulated online,” Gonzales said.
Although she has never done research specifically on Finstas, Gonzales said the size of the audience plays a big role in why people present themselves in certain ways on the internet.
For instance, Gonzales said she may only interact with a few people when she goes to drop her child off at school, so she doesn’t have to be too careful about what she does or says.
However, each post on social media is likely to be seen by hundreds of followers, Gonzales said. The reputational risks are much higher, and it's easier to take online feedback personally.
Behaviors affect our sense of identity more than the other way around, Gonzales said, which is why there’s a desire for people to post photos on Instagram that look like they feel happy or confident, even if they don’t.
Finstas instead allow young people to combat the void created by forcing an inauthentic life, Gonzales said. For some, this may seem counterintuitive, but Gonzales predicts these types of accounts are filling a growing desire for social media to feel more real.
“If you only present one side of your life online, you start to feel like you’re only living one side of your life, when life is much fuller,” Gonzales said.
O’Connor said she has been using Instagram since she got her iPod Touch during the summer before her freshman year of high school, long before Finstas became popular.
An account for random posts didn’t sound interesting when her friend first told her about Finstas during high school, but she said the concept started to grow on her and she finally made one during her freshman year of college.
She said she is careful about who she lets follow the account. Requests are accepted from college-aged people she knows, and they must be other Finsta accounts or really close friends without their own Finsta. She’ll typically only follow Finstas on her private account, not Rinstas, because she doesn’t want to see the same photos twice.
On her Finsta, she said she likes to post party photos, ugly selfies and text conversations with her dad, who lives in Los Angeles and who she only just started talking to last year.
Sometimes, like in the case of her birthday, she’ll post two photos from the same time frame. She said her Rinsta post has to have a cute caption, but its Finsta counterpart can mesh words together and use exclamation points and emojis.
For O’Connor, Finstas are better than a journal or diary because she’s already used to being on her phone. She also said she likes that, unlike in a notebook, she can easily pair her rantings with pictures.
Later, she can scroll through the account and laugh at herself, she said. It tells the story of a situation that isn’t filtered like it would be on a Rinsta.
“My Finsta displays my thoughts a lot more because I’m a hyper-spastic person, I think most people would say,” O’Connor said.
Senior Grace Oppy said she learned about Finstas a few years ago when she worked at a summer camp and noticed the middle schoolers using them. At the time, no one her age was using Instagram this way.
“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I have to have that,’ because it’s such an elite thing,” Oppy said.
She described her Finsta as “not suitable for work,” with ugly selfies and the kind of posts Amy Schumer might make had her career not taken off.
It’s a means of self-validation for even the stupidest parts of her life, she said.
Oppy lets around 70 people see her Finsta, as opposed to her 2,180 followers on her main account.
Her Finsta followers are close friends and a few IU students she only knows through Twitter but just has to trust, she said. She denies requests about once a week, usually from middle school or high school friends that aren’t a part of her life anymore.
Although her account is private and she filters who can follow, she said she thinks her settings probably aren’t as secure as she has led herself to believe.
Instagram is still a public website, and people can take screenshots of Finsta posts to share with others who may not follow a specific account.
“It’s definitely super risky,” Oppy said.
Still, she said it allows her to laugh at situations that have happened to her and take some of the public pressure off what she does online.
“When you can’t afford a therapist, you just get a Finsta,” Oppy said.