Instagram, Unfiltered

How ‘Finstagram’ came to offer up some of the realest pictures on the Internet


It’s become one of the most pernicious cliches of Instagram: Of the 1,000 words the app’s pictures tell, roughly 500 of them are thirsty and/or lacquered and/or fake. The images on the network, the story goes, are the results of excessive posing and editing and filtering, all in the service of insisting that the people who post them are #blessed and fabulous and otherwise Living Their Best Lives.

Which: gross! We already have movies and TV and fashion magazines to make us question our appearances and weekend activities and life decisions; the last thing we need is the rest of humanity jumping in. But all this means that, lately, the things that have tended to have the most public resonance when it comes to Instagram are the things that push back against the service’s self-imposed performativity. There’s the Insta-celebrity Essena O’Neill, who illuminated impossible standards through her admission that a single post of hers could require a day of starvation and approximately 100 outtakes. There’s Socality Barbie, which uses the plastic mini-mannequin to mock all those pictures of perfectly leafed lattes and perfectly assembled eggs Benedicts and perfectly glistening mountain lakes. There’s the phrase “do it for the gram,” which mocks itself.

Another form of pushback, though, takes Instagram and pits it, essentially, against itself. It’s called, elegantly, “fake Instagram”—“Finstagram” for short. It’s used primarily by teenagers and young adults, The New York Times reports, and it involves accounts that are locked and usually pseudonymous and available only to a user’s closest friends. Followers are normally kept, The Times notes, to “the low double-digits.” And because the attendant communities are so small—because images are visible only to people who ostensibly won’t judge or mock or troll—the accounts allow their users to “present truer versions of themselves than their main profiles” would allow.

Finstagram, in other words, has become the “real” Instagram. On it, Amy Wesson, a student at Trinity College, explains, “You post things you wouldn’t want people other than your friends to see, like unattractive pictures, random stories about your day, and drunk pictures from parties.”

It is entirely unsurprising that Finstagram would be both a market and a medium. The history of social media is in some sense a history of things scaling up and then scaling back, of things getting too big and thus too public and too performative … and then of people regretting the scale that has been achieved. It is also the history of other services swooping in to reintroduce intimacy. Facebook, as a response to MySpace. Twitter, as a response to Facebook. Snapchat, as a response to both. Finstagram is proof, among other things, that the accusations often hurled at younger people—that they are superficial, that they are narcissistic, that they are the kinds of people who find no irony in taking 20 shots for a “candid photo”—are no truer today than they were when those same accusations were hurled at older generations. Finstagram speaks to the delights of smallness, of weirdness, of experimentation. To the relief—in every sense of the word—of that which is truly candid.

And it also speaks to a broader need in social media: for intimate spaces that allow for these kinds of intimate experiences. Experiences that don’t scale. Experiences that aren’t broadly public, and that thus aren’t broadly performative. “Safe space,” as a term and as a political concept, has been in the news recently; as a cultural concept, though, it translates well to Facebook and Twitter and, indeed, Instagram. Not everything should be public. Not everything should be Google-crawlable. Users recognize this; companies—the ones that are quickly building the infrastructures people rely on to communicate with each other—can be slower to see it. Finstagram is a reminder, though, that if those companies don’t provide intimate spaces themselves, people will find a way to make their own. One locked account, and one silly picture, at a time.