Realer than your public Instagram.

Image: Justin Jensen via Flickr

At the end of high school, my brother gave me a (fake) pink plastic Louis Vuitton purse. I carted it around the city that hot, anxious summer of waiting for college, the plastic searing sweaty patches onto my bare skin. The purse, I found out years later, fooled some of my peers: when I met a guy I’d be attending college with, plastic purse in hand, he apparently catalogued me as “one of those Upper East Side princesses.”

To me, the purse was hilariously extra: Barbie pink, plastic, covered in the LV logo? It even had a matching mini purse that clipped onto the side of the whole apparatus—it was too extra to be believable as a serious designer accoutrement. Or so I thought. This attitude didn’t really take into account the all kinds of extra that line designer racks. It also didn’t take into account the power of context: long femme hair and a private school education made me perfect fodder for a certain set of assumptions.

The thing about fakery is it’s so hard to distinguish from reality, in part because it’s not usually unreal, it’s just not what you think it is: fake meat is real food; fake friendships are relationships with tangible effects on our lives; fake news (and “fake news”) move through our screens and communicate something, whatever it’s relationship to “reality.” Even my purse, while not actually Louis Vuitton, was a very real object that I very truly used to carry things around in.

The ambiguity of reality and fakery is something we have historically been able to explore online, where the contextual cues and the imperative of identify-and-react that drive our judgments IRL were absent. “Profiles” and “accounts” on the Internet were only loosely tied to IRL identity, and we checked them sporadically, when it occurred to us; the Internet at large served as a space where we could experiment with self-presentation and test the boundaries of what connection and communication looked like, crisscrossing between “real” and “fake” with impunity. Today, because so much of our online activity feeds into very real IRL compendiums of “me” (your Tinder is linked to your Facebook which is linked to your Spotify, your professional life is lived out on Twitter, your grandma follows your Instagram), there’s less room for the “alt” identities that we developed across platforms a few years ago. Online, we’re expected to perform a consistent, legible persona that blends seamlessly with professional and generally inoffensive IRL selves. We perform, constantly, across online platforms, for an audience that could include anyone.

This kind of controlled online “I” is, of course, deeply fake—even as it’s really, distressingly tied to the way we are perceived and move through the world, it often has little to do with the way we experience and think about that world. The self that is acceptable to your tinder date, your boss, and your grandma, while factually tied to your data, is going to be a highly narrowed iteration of any feeling, perceiving, real “I,” and certainly a far cry from the inconsistent but emotionally open self of the early Internet. It has all the tools of that Internet, plus more: image manipulation, online, becomes continually easier, with a new face modification app in the iTunes store every other day. It’s the context of that manipulation that has changed. In tying itself up in reality, the Internet has gotten very fake.

There’s room for experimentation and exploration online that embraces the irreality of a consistent, consumable avatar. Conceptual artist Amalia Ulman’s 2014 project, “Excellences and Perfections,” which used Instagram tropes to propel a fictional story of “Amalia,” was hailed as a contender for the title of first Instagram masterpiece. But Ulman’s account bio now reads, “My private account is much better.” Even when the dominant system is used to explore identity, it operates within the constraints of an expanding etiquette of consumable, factual fakery. The most interesting experiments on Instagram may be inversions rather than embraces, happening behind closed-account doors where there’s a little more safety, a little less pressure to get the experiment right all at once; after staring into the depths of irreality made accessible to identity-performance on Instagram, other, converse extremes start to look possible. The platform might be made to support flagrant engagement with honesty.

This is the promise of the finstagram. A finstagram, or finsta, is a private Instagram account used by someone who also maintains a public account. The name comes from the term “fake Instagram”—a funny derivation, because a finsta is usually so much more “real,” or open and honestly tied to lived experience, than a public Instagram account (or, realstagram). It’s only fake insofar as it’s not what’s expected of an Instagram account, and maybe in that it is often anonymously presented to non-followers—it’s unreality is defined through its ties to the reality established by a very fake, very accessible system. When the world is upside down, sometimes “fake news” is really the New York Times penning some observed realities (does this mean that my Chinatown LV could be considered just as “real” as something out of the 5th Avenue store? Avanope would say yes).

Some finstagram accounts have relatively high follower numbers: in the sixties, up into hundreds. Obviously, the kind of “realness” shared in such a group isn’t overtly explicit. From a larger finsta, you expect silly jokes and general emotional complaints without the kind of details that really “give you away” to your followers. The fact that these kinds of accounts exist—let’s call them public finstas, although a finsta is always, by definition, a private account—speaks to the depth of performance (of fakeness?) that occurs on a public account. When you are presenting a self for an audience that could literally include anyone in the world, to censor is to self-preserve. Even the general kind of openness reserved for people you actually know, close friends or not, demands a fake account.

It’s when kept smaller that the finsta offers some of the radical, honest play with self presentation and communication offered by online profiles in an earlier Internet era. When your finsta has twelve followers (full disclosure: that is the number of people who follow my finsta), those twelve followers are likely the people you can and do talk to, IRL or on Facetime, about the gritty ins-and-outs of your emotional journey through the week. They are people you know won’t spill your secrets to anyone outside of the account or judge you, the people whose advice you want and trust and whose support you rely on.

This sort of community, on whatever platform, is conducive to open, honest discussion and communication—to realness. But even within this kind of intimate circle, there are certain experiences—small, uninteresting looking ones—that can be hard to know how to discuss even as they chip away at you or weigh you down. They don’t feel important enough to ask your friends to listen to or they don’t get articulated with the drama with which they are felt. The finstagram can make room to share those experiences, as we feel them, in real time or in the real time of backwards-looking musing and obsessing. As the Internet creates new axes of social interaction, it opens up, above all else, space: space to be more fake, but also, perhaps, space in which to build deep, comprehensive honesty, and space for relationships to bind themselves more tightly to the often-lonely drama of individual experience.

We live fractured lives: the real Louis Vuitton purse, its price tag, its vendors, its culture, sits in our minds, while in Chinatown lurks another purse, which looks the same but comes with entirely different parameters. The Chinatown purse, to me, is far more real: I still remember tying two plastic loops on the “chain” strap together with a piece of ribbon when it broke apart, I still remember the red lines the purse’s hard edges left on my arms and my legs, and the way the city seemed to ooze with unforgiving tension all summer as I waited to leave, purse in hand. A real LV purse? For me, for most people, that remains conceptual, distant, fake insofar as it will probably never exist, IRL, in our closets. But that is the purse that might leave a lasting impression, burned into the brain of a guy you went to college with; reality depends on who’s experiencing, who’s talking, and who’s remembering.

A friend explained finstas to me as uncurated content for a curated audience, in contrast to the curated content for an uncurated audience represented by public accounts. But I’ll look, sometimes, at the account page of my finsta and consider how all those images work together—I’d argue that very few online profiles, whatever their audience, are actually uncurated. The question is what imperatives are guiding the curation, and what standards of reality they are working with.


FAKES is The Awl’s year-end holiday series for 2017. You can read the whole collection here.