How Youth Are Reinventing Instagram and Why Having Multiple Accounts Is Trending

Berkman Klein Center
Nov 2, 2018 · 12 min read

By Tanvi Kanchinadam, Skyler Sallick, Quinn Robinson, Jessi Whitby, Sonia Kim, Alexa Hasse, Sandra Cortesi, and Andres Lombana-Bermudez

Illustrations by Elsa Brown, Rebecca Smith, Melanie Tan, and Claudia Thomas

Today’s social media landscape offers a crucial space for youth to interact with others, form and maintain relationships, and develop media relevant attitudes, skills, norms, and practices. Rich in visual and audiovisual content, and with an array of opportunities to engage in identity exploration, creative expression, and building and curating audiences and networks, the social media environment is multifaceted and complex. Friendship and gossip, romance and drama, reputation and competition are a part of an online, networked sociality layered with social norms similar to those that exist offline.

In this Medium post, the Youth and Media team at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society discuss youth’s (ages 12–18) engagement on Instagram, which is currently the second most popular platform among youth in the U.S. (after YouTube) according to a recent Pew Research Center study.

From “YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat are the most popular online platforms among teens,” Pew Research Center

In an effort to highlight the range of perspectives and voices from our intergenerational team (including team members attending high school and college), we have structured this post as a multimodal compilation that includes:

  1. A group reflection on the social dynamics of Instagram
  2. A personal story around the social aspects of Instagram; and
  3. An audio podcast based on a roundtable conversation we had within the Youth and Media team at the Berkman Klein Center.

Rinstas, Finstas, . . . You-Name-It-Instas: Experimenting with Identity and Creative Expression

The two terms that are currently the most important to understand in the world of Instagram are rinsta (“real Instagram”) and finsta (“fake Instagram”).

Illustration by Rebecca Smith

For most youth, a rinsta is their default account, where they manage their (often carefully curated) online public persona. Filled with photos captured in perfect lighting, witty captions, and strategic hashtags, the existence and prevalence of these types of Instagram accounts help support the notion that youth seek to present a socially desirable self online. Affordances of Instagram and other online spaces, such as asynchronicity, help “allow young people to craft strategic self-representations by deciding what information to highlight, downplay, exaggerate, or leave out entirely” (Gardner & Davis, 2013, p. 63).

By contrast, a finsta (also called a “fun Instagram,” “fake Instagram,” and interchangeably used with sinsta or “second Instagram”) is almost always one’s secondary account. A finsta is sometimes treated and perceived as more private than a rinsta. Compared to rinstas, finstas consist of less curated and performative content, typically meant to be seen by a user’s closest friends. This content might include references to inside jokes, a series of unflattering or humorous selfies, or memes that users believe their core group of friends might find funny. Given that users often share personal content on finstas, they tend to have a highly selective and small group of followers. Finstas may also have specific names depending on the identities, themes, and/or hobbies youth want to explore. For example, a finsta dedicated to dogs may be called a “dogsta,” or a “petsta;” a finsta about donuts may be termed a “donutsta.” These types of finstas are not necessarily treated as particularly private or personal and might amass a large group of followers based on a shared interest.

As several Youth and Media team members attest to, the content and number of followers on a finsta can vary.

  • Tanvi, 16, has a very active shared finsta account with a close friend (i.e., they both post content on the account). The finsta features jokes, memes, and other tidbits of personal information about their lives. The account is extremely private — only a select group of friends knows the account name and has permission to follow it.
  • Skyler, 19, has a finsta that is largely for comedic purposes, with no particularly serious or sensitive content. The posts are only accessible to her closest family and friends.
  • Quinn, 17, has a finsta that the Youth and Media team has dubbed a “Quinnsta.” This account is an online diary of his daily life with no followers; it is intended only for his personal use (i.e., Quinn is the sole user and there are no followers).
Illustration by Claudia Thomas

While some Youth and Media members felt that maintaining multiple Instagram profiles may be burdensome and unintuitive, Tanvi, Skyler, and Quinn found keeping multiple accounts simple — and preferable to having a single account. The three of them explained that, in their opinion, Instagram’s account switch feature — which allows users to switch to a different account (one can have up to five Instagram accounts) with the push of a button — contributes to the widespread finsta/rinsta phenomenon.

The possibility of having multiple accounts on Instagram reminds us that identity development is an important part of youth life and that social media platforms offer not only one, but several opportunities, for identity exploration, expression, and formation. As several Internet researchers have argued (boyd & Ellison 2007; Madden et al., 2013; Marwick & boyd 2010; Palfrey & Gasser, 2016; Papacharissi, 2010), social media enables young people to explore their identities and experiment with self-presentation according to different contexts and audiences. In the case of Instagram, creating and maintaining rinstas, finstas, and you-name-it-instas can be understood as ways for youth to engage in this form of identity exploration and impression management.

Collage by Elsa Brown and Andres Lombana-Bermudez

Youth navigate complex social spaces while interacting on social media platforms. In our group discussion, we agreed that offline social and cultural norms from peer groups and specific contexts are often re-created on Instagram. This observation aligns with research revealing the significant overlap between youth’s offline and online social networks (Davis, 2010; Martin & Ito, 2015; Reich, Subrahmanyam, & Espinoza, 2012; Subrahmanyam, Reich, Waechter, & Espinoza, 2008). As Tanvi explained, “You can’t take offline interactions in a vacuum, and you can’t take online interactions in a vacuum. Both of them coexist and depend on each other. Leaving my online life would have a significant impact on my offline life.”

Collage by Elsa Brown and Andres Lombana-Bermudez

Tanvi, Skyler, and Quinn offered three reasons for why granting a peer access to a finsta is indicative of general social standing and/or friendship with that person. First, as most finsta owners only allow select people to follow them, belonging to that exclusive group can signal closeness and that the account owner likes that person.

Second, finsta owners may want their followers to interact with their account in a particular way. For example, some finsta owners may desire positive reinforcement via followers’ likes and comments, which may be perceived as valuable social capital. However, others may not have such expectations regarding participation. In some cases, the fact that a person has been allowed to follow a finsta — rather than the number of likes or comments the person leaves — is more indicative of their social standing with the account owner. Each team member had differing opinions about the importance of each of these factors, which revealed not only the diversity of finstas but also the diversity of users’ preferences when it comes to follower participation. However, it was generally agreed that, compared to the rinsta, the finsta was a safe space due to selective followership.

In the context of a rinsta, Tanvi, Skyler, and Quinn explained that an account’s follower/following ratio represents one of the key markers of one’s social capital. The desired ratio is to follow fewer people than the number of people who follow you (for example, if you follow 100 people, and 500 people follow you, then you have a more desired ratio than a user who follows 100 people with 100 people following the user). Therefore, one’s follower/following ratio can be conceptualized as a measure of one’s popularity in his/her direct social circles, and beyond.

Illustration by Melanie Tan and Claudia Thomas

Tanvi, Skyler, and Quinn agreed that whether people were engaging with a “real insta” or a “fake insta,” all social media content is heavily curated. However, this was not viewed as a false projection of self (a common critique of young people from adults). Instead, it was seen as the human desire of many people, regardless of age, to control their self-presentation and put their best foot forward, whether in the offline or the digital sphere. When asked which Instagram accounts felt more “real” or “fake,” Skyler, Quinn, and Tanvi explained that the “rinsta” and “finsta” were just names. Both profiles encapsulated the challenges and opportunities of social media in the creation of multiple “real” networked selves.

Our conversation highlighted the complexities and nuances behind the team members’ Instagram practices. It may be telling to note that Skyler, Tanvi, and Quinn attended the same high school in New England. They acknowledge that their shared school network — along with their personal friendships, intimate relationships, and even professional networks — might have played a role in shaping their expectations, behaviors, and practices on Instagram. For them, Instagram is an important extension of their social life, and being on the platform involves a diverse set of modes of engagement that vary according to their social relationships and the online and offline cultures they are a part of.

Clueless (With Captions) on Quinnsta (Quinn’s Instagram)

By Quinn Robinson (17, high school student)

When I open Instagram every morning — alongside one billion others — I tend to be greeted by one of three possibilities. My feed is filled with filtered vacation pictures and selfies, each one meticulously framed to maximize engagement through comments, reshares, and likes (with a caption that probably took an hour to craft). It could be full of blurry, unflattering close-ups and memes featuring subtitles that describe an awkward moment that had just happened. Or, my feed could be covered in graphics advertising the latest singles and EP releases from artists I enjoy. While all three of these scenarios occur on the same application, the reason they are so different is simple: I have three Instagram accounts.

The first, colloquially called a “rinsta,” represents my starter account. I created it sometime during sixth grade at the request of my friends, and over the years I’ve built up over 1,000 followers even though the account is private (i.e., only approved followers can view my posts). Generally, most people (including myself) do a basic vetting process before letting someone join their ‘audience’, and will accept a follower if they’re a friend, friend of a friend, or even just a reputable-looking account. In that sense, my rinsta is a more public-facing profile than the ‘private’ setting might have you believe.

The second account is a “finsta,” which usually stands for “fake insta.” On this one, I and other people typically post memes, jokes, updates on our lives, and occasionally long-form reflections on things we’re struggling with. The audience for my “finsta” is restricted to my closest friends; the people who I’m comfortable sharing more than just small talk with. On various finsta accounts that I follow, I’ve witnessed recaps of and reflections around fights with parents, college-induced stress, and depressive and anxious episodes.

I originally created my third Instagram account (which would technically also qualify as a finsta) to showcase my attempts at music production, but now I mainly use it to discover a recent music project or browse spring/summer fashion collections. I’m not alone in having multiple Instagram accounts — I definitely was not the first person to develop a “finsta” — and from what I see at my high school, the practice is becoming increasingly common. Some of my friends have accounts about their dog, food they’ve eaten, memes, and even Lego constructions.

My rinsta serves almost as a social resume for the way I live my life (in the adult world, a comparable example might be one’s LinkedIn or Facebook profile): the worse it looks, the worse I look. There are clear social norms established around how to present one’s ‘ideal’ self to casual acquaintances (or the public, including potential college admissions officers), which has become embedded in the rinsta.

The finsta is a way around this. The friends who follow my finsta are the people who already know my strange habits and sense of humor. They know me well. I’m able to express myself without considering the unwritten social rules that apply when expressing myself to a larger, semi-public audience. At the same time, though, there’s still a perceived pressure to act in a certain way: even if the group has been narrowed down compared to my rinsta, rules still remain. Curiously, they move in the opposite direction here. People viewing a finsta expect the raw, the unpolished, the stream of consciousness. Posting a VSCO-filtered picture with a well-thought-out caption would seem strange, while a blurry selfie with a long rant about a stressful day wouldn’t bat an eye.

The implicit and explicit rules me and my peers perceive as relevant don’t just dictate what we post and when, but also who ends up seeing it. To enhance an audience on Instagram, many people (particularly on their rinsta) are constantly trying to preserve and improve their “ratio” of followers to people they follow. They often maintain this ratio through a combination of the following strategies: 1) they find out who has unfollowed them through a third-party app and unfollow them in return, 2) they unfollow people who they don’t interact with or don’t want to see the posts of, and/or 3) they accept follows only not to follow back.

There’s a constant behind-the-scenes power struggle for social and cultural capital — a struggle that we all understand, but few openly acknowledge. Some of us choose not to play the game by not having an account at all, but that often has real-world effects in terms of how they are perceived. In my opinion, they immediately become an outsider to the larger “in” group of Instagram users through their refusal to participate.

Taking an outsider’s perspective, these interactions and rules might seem fairly inconsequential, but so do many of the social norms that govern our face-to-face lives. Yes, we often present ourselves on social media as better than we really are (at least better than we think we are), but if thrown in front of a real-world crowd of brand new people, I doubt many would show off their unfiltered selves immediately. Everyone chooses the decor of their house, the car they drive, the clothes they wear, facial expressions they make, and the language they choose to speak in to present what is, essentially, their own “brand.” Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous theory of “The Look” was developed to describe how people changed their behavior in the presence of others. As one example, some individuals engage in code-switching — that is, alternating between two or more languages in a single conversation, depending on the context — in the hopes of being perceived by others in a certain way. The issues of presenting “false identities” and dealing with the power dynamics of popularity aren’t born from social media. They’re exacerbated by it.

To those who might’ve rolled their eyes for the first half of this post, think back to your time in high school. Were you really the fiercely independent free spirit you want today’s teenagers to be, or did you share their self-censorship and promotion?

The Insta-Podcast

The Youth and Media team has produced a 12-minute podcast about youth media practices on Instagram that complements the social dynamics around rinstas/finstas discussed above. The podcast is based on a group conversation we had as a team (including team members in high school, college, and older) in August, and it has been edited in order to highlight key topics around the use of multiple Instagram accounts, including the relationship between the online/offline world; social norms and rules surrounding multiple account usage; and the ways young people engage in identity exploration on the platform.

Berkman Klein Center Collection

Insights from the Berkman Klein community about how technology affects our lives (Opinions expressed reflect the beliefs of individual authors and not the Berkman Klein Center as an institution.)

Berkman Klein Center

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The Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University was founded to explore cyberspace, share in its study, and help pioneer its development.

Berkman Klein Center Collection

Insights from the Berkman Klein community about how technology affects our lives (Opinions expressed reflect the beliefs of individual authors and not the Berkman Klein Center as an institution.)

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