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Is It Just a Highlight Reel? The Secret of Casual Instagram and Finstas

by Kat Ureña

This piece was originally published in Issue 1: Secret Edition (Spring 2022). To see past print publications, click here.

The most recent trend across all social media platforms is to be more intimate with the people who see your content—using your accounts as a virtual diary.

Social media has always been a place for people to share memories, post memes or interact with friends and family. You can have heartfelt captions to remember a found moment or silly inside jokes or puns that your group chat helped you come up with. In general, social media has been a space for creators—famous or not—to let us into their personal lives. Over the years social media has gone through phases with new platforms falling and rising, like Vine, Musically, Snapchat, and TikTok. We’ve seen posts go from just sharing vacation photos or graduation pictures, to posing for pictures with our food, random days we feel good and inspiration quotes. The most recent trend across all social media platforms is to be more intimate with the people who see your content—using your accounts as a virtual diary.
The most fascinating, to me, are trends within the different platforms to create secret accounts or private stories. I wanted to find out more about how female-identifying people used these secret accounts and what it meant for them. Rather than passively observing the content, I set out to interview people who were active participants in this culture of finstas.

Molly, 19

Katherine: Why did you make your private account to begin with?

Molly: The first private account I made was with 4 of my friends where we collectively posted dumps from our lives. We made it as a fun way to show the more casual pictures we take to a smaller group of people. A place where we didn’t have family members or near strangers viewing our posts.

Katherine: How long have you had your secret account or private story? Has the content you share changed over time?

Molly: I think I have had my private account for about a year. I’m not sure if the content has changed much. Maybe it has just gotten a little less cringe over time. In my opinion at least, others might not think so…

Katherine: What kind of content do you post and how does it differ from your main account/story content?

Molly: I never really post on my main page, I felt like I never had anything to post, just occasional vacation photos. I guess I could post my private account content on my main page but I just find it more fun to post on my ‘finsta’ with different captions. It’s normally just pictures of me.

Katherine: How differently do you interact with people on your private account than on your main?

Molly: As far as interacting I think I communicate similarly in comment sections as far as what I say. I think I just comment more frequently on the private account because it’s stuff that pertains to me and my friends and things that I find funny. On Instagram I don’t really interact with people aside from sending posts or liking.

Katherine: Since having a secret account or private Snapchat story how do you feel your self-expression has changed? Are you more open? Reserved?

Molly: My expression on social media is probably more open but that’s just because I post more—not that much more but more—than I did before. I think I still like to portray myself a certain way even on secret accounts as far as being intentionally cringe, unfunny or crusty.

The use of these secret accounts and stories is a way to freely express how you experience the world, by posting the half-drunk coffee you had this morning or giving length captions that better resemble a chaotic journal entry.

As Molly describes, the use of these secret accounts and stories is a way to freely express how you experience the world, by posting the half-drunk coffee you had this morning or giving length captions that better resemble a chaotic journal entry. Some things that may seem a little odd if you decided to share on your more public accounts.

We’ve seen social media go through so many different versions, evolving as the definition of the “IT Girl” changed. Young girls look to these IT Girls for how they should live their lives, trying to emulate Kylie Jenner, Bella Hadid or Emma Chamberlain from their fashion, to their diet and even their mannerisms. The IT Girls have varied from the extremely posed, well dressed and full face of makeup “Baddies”—to the most prominent IT Girl surfacing the internet at the moment—the clean girl or That Girl. This type of girl on social media exudes “model off duty” and is always “fresh-faced.” They tend to share random moments from their lives in visually perfect posts.

In this next portion of our interview, I wanted to ask Molly how she felt about these different trends and see how they might affect the private account experience. How do these notions of the most desirable girl change how we use social media? How much of this seeps into our real lives?

Katherine: How do you feel about “casual Instagram,” a trend that seeks to make posting on your personal account more casual, as though your secret account merges with your personal account? Does it take away from your secret account or private story?

Molly: I actually listened to Emma Chamberlain’s podcast, and I agreed with most of what she said. Casual Instagram often does even more harm than regular Instagram. I think this is because when people are viewing high glamor shots, they know that they’re false and therefore don’t compare themselves. I think casual Instagram is a fallacy, that the pictures people post casually are just as calculated as the rest of the pictures they post. People want to make it look like their day-to-day life is aesthetic and goofy but they’re still only showing the highlights. And that’s when people compare themselves because they’re like “damn my days don’t look like this.” I think the posts on people’s secret accounts are much different than “casual” posts on their main accounts. It’s in that comparison that you can see how staged “casual” Instagram is.

Molly mentioned Emma Chamberlain, society’s quintessential IT Girl who brought back flare yoga pants, UGGs and so much more. On her podcast “Anything Goes” she talks about casual Instagram and how much our social media presence is a part of our identity. She goes on to say that “Instagram is an extension of [people’s] personality” and that you can easily curate your Instagram any way that you want people to perceive you. Instagram has become some sort of a creative outlet, says Chamberlain, where we can share our favorite books, favorite meals. She goes on to explain that casual posting is less about posing and planning and more about raw moments and that this way of posting takes the pressure off. However, Emma says that there is also a fake casual Instagram, where it’s not just random photos you took in the moment, but it took you 10 minutes to take the best photo.

Katherine: I’m sure you’ve noticed the different trends of the “most desirable girl” on social media. Currently we are living in the age of “That Girls” and the clean girl aesthetic. Do you think this newly popular aesthetic is a result of this more calculated “casual Instagram”?

Molly: I would agree that casual instagram is calculated, making it appear as though people’s lives are fun and quirky and flawless. Casual Instagram posts often show more of a person’s personality, or maybe just the personality they want to be perceived as. Even casual Instagrams where people intend to look funny/ goofy or artfully aesthetic are still the very highlights of a person’s humor or artsiness. The new version of an IT Girl doesn’t just consist of her appearance but also her ability to appear humble and funny.

Katherine: Do you see yourself adapting this set of trendy behaviors and actions seen by the it girls of the time? Do you feel any pressure to do so?

Molly: I think on my private accounts I still do try to be as funny or pretty as possible because those are traits I hold to be important. I personally am not interested in makeup, fashion, or Pinterest vibe aesthetic so I don’t adapt to those behaviors. I’m more concerned with appearing funny and attractive which is one element of this new age IT Girl. I don’t necessarily feel pressure to act a certain way, but sometimes I aspire to post similar to some of my friends whose accounts I find appealing.

Katherine: How would you describe your own relationship with social media? How about for women in general?

Molly: For me, I low-key don’t care about social media as far as comparison. Like I know that my feed is filled with attractive people and that’s why they’re famous so I know not to compare myself. The reason I might not post is probably more concerned with what my aunts, uncles, or cousins would think and not my other followers. I think that women in general post far more than men on social media, at least non-famous ones. I think that’s because of the stylistic aspects of social media. Girls get more creative with their posts.

Katherine: Do you think that social media platforms could be changed or created in some way to exemplify the best parts of finsta or casual Instagram?

Molly: To be honest I think that human nature will always take hold when it comes to portraying ourselves to others. We will always want to be perceived in an idealized way and taking away likes or comments isn’t necessarily gonna fix that. Because even if a comment section is disabled, people are still going to screenshot and share posts and discuss amongst their friends. By putting yourself on the internet you are volunteering to be judged and perceived and I don’t think there’s any way that the app itself could change that. It would have to be a cultural change toward acceptance. I think an interesting app would be one where you can’t upload anything from your camera roll.You have to post live and real! Also things like followers, likes, and comments would not be publicly displayed/not be a thing.

Regardless of how some may feel about the phenomena, these secret Instagram accounts and stories have given people a space to think and post freely. No one would stop you in class to ask “why don’t I follow your finsta?”

While this is only one person’s experience it’s clear there is growing conversation about this topic with new terms being coined all the time! News channels have picked up the well-known “finsta” stories and even the senate, where they begged the question… “Will you commit to ending finsta?” – Senator Richard Blumenthal. But what do I think? Regardless of how some may feel about the phenomena, these secret Instagram accounts and stories have given people a space to think and post freely. No one would stop you in class to ask “why don’t I follow your finsta?” the same way they would be offended if you hadn’t added them to your main accounts.You can write a 200 word caption and no one would bat an eye, or post photos of you having a mental breakdown without someone thinking you are insane.

I have always used my social media accounts as a way to express myself freely and felt that multiple accounts would become a hassle at some point to separate my life. I try to be the most authentic I can be on my accounts and keeping my following small allows me to do that. Of course it’s always a more polished version of myself but I guess I prefer sharing my highlight reels to the world instead. There is a shared knowledge that these secret accounts and stories are meant to something more—secret, personal and completely unhinged.