A few weeks ago, a friend of mine—let’s call her Jennifer—posted an Instagram story late at night. She was bemoaning her romantic situation: seeing new guys, but still hung up on her ex. The story was vulnerable, a wail of frustration directed at the position she found herself in. It’s one that’s familiar to young people, particularly college freshmen, everywhere. Her yearning for the comforts of home and her simultaneous excitement (however trepidatious) about the future resonated as well.

It wasn’t the content of the post that drew my attention, then, but its form. The words were carefully arranged, collage-style, beside emojis and pictures of Jennifer and her new fling. The scribble covering the man’s face matched the colors of the text. She made excellent use of negative space. I was especially curious about why she’d posted it where she did: not on her main account, but on a “close friends” story on her already exclusive “finsta” account. I swiped up and asked her why she’d posted it there. She admitted it was to block her ex from seeing the story, and that only four of our closest friends could see the post anyway. So why not just talk to us?

It’s not necessary to delve into the specific psyche of Jennifer to understand her decision. Rather, I see it as a consequence of our generation’s relationship with social media. Feeling hesitant about emotional intimacy is a universal experience, but Instagram and platforms like it have given us the tools to circumvent vulnerability in a new way. By artfully arranging the images and text in her story, and by posting about her feelings in a space meant primarily for consumption rather than starting a dialogue, Jennifer’s crisis became a performance—one that was easier to put on than it would have been to pick up the phone and talk about it.

Anyone who’s ever seen an Instagram post is familiar with the performativity of positive emotion on social media. As Instagram has become the space where we create first impressions and maintain continued presences in our peers’ lives, it’s pressured us to project
“better” or “the best” versions of ourselves. College students feel the additional impulse to emulate the ideal college experiences presented in the media or conferred by the name of our elite institutions. Social media prods us to make every part of ourselves marketable–it’s not only our resumés or our dinner-party anecdotes that we must prepare to share with others, but our spontaneous adventures, our best friendships, and our happiest memories. And when every moment of our lives is documented, we start to perform all the time. Try taking out a phone and holding it so the camera is level with any teenager in America. Chances are, they’ll turn and pose for a Snapchat or Instagram story with frighteningly reflexive speed, lest they be caught unawares, and an unflattering photo captured. In this hyper-surveilled reality, admitting any imperfection feels like a failure to keep up the show.

The “finsta” attempts to subvert this expectation, but only succeeds in extending our performativity further into our interior lives. For the uninitiated: the “finsta,” short for “fake Instagram,” is an account shared only with one’s close friends. Despite its moniker, it’s meant to be real and unfiltered, an escape from the prison of Facetune, planned outfits, and picturesque backgrounds that plague even the unsponsored Instagram user.

At first glance, the finsta seems like it would bring people closer together. Running a more casual account does make it easier to share one’s daily life with more of one’s friends. But many finstas, including Jennifer’s, are not just used to post funny memes and anecdotes. Instead, they’ve become vehicles for people to share their most intimate emotions and concerns. Think crying selfies, paragraphs-long rants, screenshotted break-up texts. The finsta user will point to this as evidence that they can maintain some authenticity on Instagram. However, the composition of a social media post inherently prevents us from expressing our emotions genuinely. Our thoughts, when spoken aloud, might come out in a jumble, or even as a scream. We regulate the words we speak in microseconds and control them mostly by instinct. Posting, on the other hand, is drawn-out and methodical. We choose an image. Change the brightness, crop it, move it around. Type out a caption. Look it over, maybe add an ironic hashtag or accessorize with an emoji. Hit post—to an audience, whose responses are able to be controlled by the original poster. It’s a construction and a performance, just as a filtered and edited Instagram post would be. Applying the format of a social media post to complex emotions (rather than solely to the greatest-hits moments on our main accounts) puts distance between us and our own feelings, and actually ends up making us more detached from the people we want to share things with.

It’s not entirely our fault: we’ve been conditioned to act this way through a lifetime of texting and dedication to celebrity Instagram feeds and YouTube channels. Instagram and Snapchat themselves have commodified the finsta trend through “close friends” and “private” stories, making it even easier to avoid the tough work of confronting our real selves. Like young adults always have, we struggle to verbalize our anxieties and regulate our vulnerability. Finsta posts help in that they allow us to control the image of ourselves we present to others. But they also let us use this control to vent our frustrations through oblique and symbolic Internet conventions (like the Instagram story Jennifer composed), rather than forcing us to put them into words and directly communicate with others. Instagram posts are not designed in a way that allows for a conversation: comments are public; DMs require that the responder go out of their way and aren’t integrated into posts themselves. There is something fun about putting on these performances, and one could maybe even call them art. But if the goal of running an “authentic” account on social media is to connect with others, the finsta fails us by letting us hide.

On our finstas, we’ve graduated from pretending everything is okay, but aren’t yet brave enough to speak directly with one another about what is not. Our expressions of ourselves continue to be edited and aestheticized no matter how raw we try to make them, and they come with an implied audience rather than existing in a dialogue. How can we feel heard and understood when neither our own words nor our friends’ responses are natural or spontaneous? In order for us to escape our cycle of performativity and communicate our feelings effectively, we must let go of social media and have real, vulnerable, and verbal conversations.