By Lauren Ball
The chatter of an undergraduate party swarmed, steadily competing with the indiscriminate tunes blasting from hidden speakers. The revelers – college-aged and already buzzed on Hennessy shots and cheap wine – lazed calmly. All social anxiety and menial conventions had been congenially dismissed hours before. Cigarette smoke clung to quiet conversations and a few party-goers lay on the floor in a daze while records skipped. Most, however, sat glued to their phones, scanning their screens for something more profound than spilled alcohol and tipsy attempts at communication.
Through a handful of conversations with university undergrads, it turns out there’s a simple reason behind Generation Z’s fixation with their phones.
Finstagram, short for “fake Instagram,” has begun to dominate the social media currents of young smartphone users who value online privacy in a place meant just for friends.
“I created my Finsta in November,” said Olivia Reese, a 19-year-old Northwestern freshman. “To be completely honest, I created my Finsta just to post things for my friends. So many of them had one, and I wanted to be a part of it.”
Acting as the opposing counterpart of Rinstagram (or, you guessed it, “real Instagram”), Finstagram is a digital realm composed of private accounts within the Instagram app created to free users from the pressures of staged perfection on social media. Instead of strictly adhering to their “brand,” or Internet identity, Finstagram offers users a respite from the modern necessity of social media performance.
“A Rinsta is more like a brand,” said Marina Seyffert, a sophomore at Northwestern University. “There’re certain things I’d post on my Finsta that I’d never post on my Rinsta, because they’re used for different things. My Finsta is a lot more for just myself. I don’t really care if people see it or like it, it’s just for me. I use it more than a physical diary or journal.”
Where Seyffert’s public Rinsta account features cultivated film portraits and scenes of family and friends, her Finsta reaches far beyond the sphere of typical digital social conventions. Dotting her page are photos of sunsets with highly personal captions detailing homesickness and sentimental memories. There are snapshots of texts from her parents and best friends and, perhaps most contentiously, commentaries on pictures of peers. One such post features a young woman in a Native American Halloween costume that Seyffert deems “racist,” and she speculates the subject of another post has gotten plastic surgery.
Despite the gossip, it all seems innocent enough. The younger generation desires more privacy while floating through the currents of social media – specifically, Instagram, which hosts the Finstagram accounts. They want a space to share pictures and thoughts with a select group of friends, to feel secure in their digital habits.
However, Lidia Pereira, editor of the Immaterial Labor Union Zine, detects something darker in the sweeping popularity of Finstagram.
“A lot of theory says that social media is actually splitting us up,” said Pereira over a spotty international call between Rotterdam and Chicago. “There’s a false sense of community. We’re atoms in the social media graph and we’re connected by links. That connection is also reflected in our day-to-day interactions with other people. We’re so concerned with creating this persona online that maybe we’re consequently losing a sense of community and the possibility for like-minded individuals to come together and achieve something.”
Pereira doesn’t have a Finstagram herself, focusing on her involvement with the Immaterial Digital Labor movement. A relatively new social theory and burgeoning labor union (though not yet official), IDL calls for safe regulations for digital workplaces, including Uber and Air B&B. However, labor is a stringent concept, and some IDL activists even extend the idea of labor to the utilization of social media.
“We’re starting to see platforms emerging not just as commercial sites, but as governmental sites. Very quickly in our digital labor conversation we thought, ‘Oh, this is real. These are new forms of work. Uber drivers are working. They are now digital laborers,’” said Karen Gregory, lecturer of Digital Labor at the University of Edinburgh.
While sifting through the Rinstas and Finstas of a select few undergrads in their late teens, it gradually became difficult to divorce the process of labor from pure socialization. With an average of a picture a day posted on most Finstas, this process, which appears enjoyable and informal, inevitably lends itself to constant self-cultivation and surveillance of incoming likes.
“Honestly, my Finsta is an extension of myself, because I tend to over share everything,” said Seyffert. “There are tons of people who follow my Finsta who I just don’t know – I met them once at a party. If we’re totally getting along I’ll say, ‘Hey you should follow my Finsta’ and I’ll never see them again.”
Generation Z and younger Millennials collectively refer to Finstagram as an illusory world, using language like “actual” for typical Instagram accounts and “fake” for Finstas. But perhaps the most unsettling aspect of this sprouting culture is the mindset that Instagram, as an entity in itself, can be “real.”
“(Finstagram) is pointing out what the frustration is with social media, which is the fact that everybody now has constructed an image of themselves online,” said Alex Hovi, a Chicago-based performance artist. His recent piece, I Could Never Sacrifice My Heart…, tears at the concept of presenting romantic relationships online.
As part of his “performance,” Hovi convinced a man from Central Florida into believing they were in an online partnership for months through a Facebook relationship status request, status updates, and various tweets. Hovi even traveled to Orlando to document their surprise first meeting on Facebook Live, though he never considered the relationship to be real, and didn’t communicate this information with his “partner.” “Someone commented on a Facebook post and said ‘I’m living for your relationship,’” said Hovi. “It got to the point where I couldn’t tell whether these people were in on it or not.” Ultimately, Hovi didn’t explicitly let his followers know if this online relationship was real, and left it to the “partner” to decode the truth through information from mutual friends.
Hovi relays, though the dramatic nature of his project, that ideas of romantic love and solid relationships have always been elusive on the Internet – and even in person. Dating and courtship have historically relied on unspoken gestures and the normalization of certain rituals, such as debutante balls, the homecoming dance, or even a simple invite to grab dinner. But with the younger generation’s excessive reliance on social media for the formation of “real life” friendships and partnerships, is the awareness of digital platform etiquette now a necessity for social inclusion and wellness?
“Human beings are peculiarly social animals,” said philosopher Eric Olson, professor at the University of Sheffield in England. “We get our need of social interaction from our ape ancestry, and these animals play different roles in different contexts. Likewise, people tend to act the way they those around them want them to act. They want to impress the people around them or get some benefit, usually for social recognition or admiration, which is also a form of acceptance.”
As Olson explained our instinctive social propensities from his office in South Yorkshire, I thought back to my first forays into the universe of MySpace as a young teenager a decade ago. Though time-consuming and repetitive, there was a subtle thrill in the idea that, even when physically absent, my peers could still immediately perceive me through pictures, text, and sound files. Better yet, I was able to delicately cultivate my image that they were then free to peruse from their respective bedrooms. There was no social anxiety, no wondering if the person next to me in Geometry 101 remembered the moment I had tripped in the cafeteria three weeks ago. The MySpace image I consented to share was mine, and mine alone, and I had hoped it would transport my peers’ perception of me from the vague realm of acceptance to unadulterated adoration.
“(Social media) generates, ultimately, negative behaviors and self-image,” said ValJeanne Caster, a personality disorder therapist from Jacksonville, Florida. “If you have to pretend to be someone else in order to get someone to like you, that means you already have a problem or an issue. That then develops into a lie that continues to be perpetuated.”
A borderline personality disorder is considered, at its core, to be a psychological illness related to disorders in relationships, behavior, mood, and self-image, according to Mental Health America. With an entire generation locked into the expectations of online socialization, to the extent that they feel the need to create separate accounts for the multiple facets of their identity, has the Internet age begun to breed an era of divided, insecure personalities?
“This is a culture of personality,” said Pereira. “It’s all about presentation, selling yourself, first looks, and not so much about your real value. The Internet is enforcing that we all have to follow a certain stereotype, which is the “good personality” that everyone should fight for. I think Millennials already suffer from it, and for Generation Z it will be interesting to see if there’s a countermovement to this standardization of identity, or if mental health problems will multiply. That’s a consequence. As soon as this idea of having to be an extrovert and magnetic and charming and attractive starts preying upon the individual’s sense of Self, anti-anxiety and anti-depression movements will increase.”
Though Pereira’s bleak hypothesis includes a hint of hope, it’s difficult to envision an online world that doesn’t contain multitudes of false projections and reconstructions. So what’s the solution to a generation so transfixed with their digital identity that they’ve normalized the potential downsides of betrayal, lies and depression?
“I’d like to see a complete abandonment of these kinds of Internet platforms, so we really need the Immaterial Digital Labor movement,” said Pereira. “It’s preparation for the counterrevolution.”