Selfhood and Social Media

What happens when we make a social media self that tells less than the whole story?

Consider, for a moment, the phenomenon of "finstas" - a smashing together of the words "fake" and "Instagram," referring to an alternate Instagram account that users typically have for posting things outside their usual aesthetic. They are full of memes, screenshots from other social media sites, and generally photos with franker captions and less composed images. Often, users will make these accounts private, sharing them only with a select number of friends who are already in on the joke of the person's "alternate" self.

I learned what a finsta is earlier this spring, and spent the better part of the next two hours considering why someone would feel the need to create a whole second account just to preserve the crafted sanctity of the first. Are we so vain, so concerned that memes and photos of things other than brunch don't fit into our images, that we have to hide them away?

Yes, as it happens. But what's more, there's nothing particularly wrong or even new about that. It's like throwing on a sweater to go visit your extended family on Saturday afternoon and drawing cat-eye wingtipped eyeliner later that night to go out with friends. It's still you the whole time, but as the social situation changes, you're playing up different parts of yourself. You use "girl" to address your friend from class and "dude" for your roommate. You met your boyfriend at a Dungeons & Dragons Meetup event that you didn't tell your other friends you were going to. If you shuffled your Spotify library, you'd eventually hit upon Hilary Duff's debut album, even though you haven't had a conversation about her since you left for college.

Finstas and similar behaviors aren't lying - not even lying by omission. In fact, the phenomenon of different selves on different social media platforms, and in "real life," is well-known and joked about. When you Google the phrase "social adaptation situation," 3.1 million results show up.

But even if it's not lying, is it harmful to curate selves so thoroughly? An essay posted in the New York Times column Modern Love detailed the writer's downward spiral after the person she was on Instagram couldn't connect with the person she was in real life, resulting in the loss of a relationship she had desperately wanted. Reading the essay is heart-wrenching as author Clara Dollar recounts her heartbreak and internal crisis.

In the closing paragraph, Dollar reflects, "I built her [my social media presence] without blueprints, not knowing that she would become a wall with no doors." Interestingly, Dollar never once blames Instagram or social media for her misfortunes. Instead, she blames an unnamed "her" - her social media account, her constructed self that she couldn't sacrifice for authenticity in her relationship. The piece as a whole reads partly as a step towards her own healing, and partly as a cautionary tale - don't let your online self compromise your offline happiness.

That's the danger that lies in self curation, and it's not limited to just social media. If we create such unbreakable personas that reflect so little of our full scope, sooner or later, we'll be caught. Not caught in a lie, but caught in an act - but the distinction between those two means little when it's love and friendship on the line.