The trend of fake Instagram accounts exposes the troubling way that work is taking over our lives

In the social media age, no one understands the high stakes of online self-presentation better than teenagersand young adults. For college students in particular, advice on developing a personal brand is profuse. Future job-seekers are counseled that a strategic online identity is necessary to stand out in an oversaturated job market. This past spring, Stanford University enlisted an especially splashy guest lecturer to dish out self-branding advice: Tyra Banks.

But shaping your Instagram and Facebook accounts to appeal to potential employers is restrictive. Young people’s lives are often emotionally turbulent, messy, and perhaps a little bit wild; they want to share the parts of themselves that they wouldn’t necessarily list on a resume or post on LinkedIn. And so they have increasingly embraced “Finstas”—fake Instagram accounts where they can present a less polished version of their lives to close friends, while eschewing monitoring from would-be employers.

On the heels of a long-term project about careers in the social media economy, I have been interviewing college students about their self-presentation activities—including about what they choose to conceal and reveal on Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat. (Few, it seems, spend significant time on Twitter). My interviews suggest that finstas are not symptomatic of the dark side of social media. Rather, they reveal a much bigger problem with the inescapability of work in the digital age.

Digital media scholar danah boyd explains that to maintain their privacy, young people have long created multiple social media accounts or used online pseudonyms. A constant refrain about social media is that a boozy photo or an offhand comment can cost you career opportunities. So college students have internalized this fear by staging an employable social media front.

Some coverage of Finstas has, predictably, fretted about its darker side—describing them as breeding grounds for cyber-bullying or a venue for sexually explicit images. Yet the term students most consistently use to describe their finstas is “funny.” As a college sophomore explained, “If something funny happens to me, I’ll [create] a post about it and tell a story or complain about my life or stuff that I want to share with people who are closer to me, but I would be very uncomfortable if my whole regular Instagram saw it.”

Commenting on the difference between finstas and rinstas (“real” Instagram accounts), another student explained, “It’s your fake Instagram, so obviously there’s some mockery behind it. It’s supposed to be funny. I don’t think I know anyone whose Finstagram is boring. Your Finstagram is not scenic pictures, it’s like funny things that are happening in your life.” The examples they gave of typical finsta content: “ugly selfies,” blow-by-blows of an awkward personal encounter, or a screen shot of a meme gone wrong.

Student contrasted these kinds of posts with Instagram culture of airbrushed perfection. “Everyone kind of knows that no one’s Instagram life is their real life,” one said. “You’re really tailoring all the photos and editing them and making sure that they look perfect. On your Finstagram, it’s supposed to be like the complete opposite.”

Indeed, the students describe finstas as a way of challenging the performativity of Instagram. It is in this vein that some writers have suggested finstas are a “chance to be real on social media.” But when I raised this idea to my students in a class on New Media and Society, they pushed back. You’re still performing a funny version of you, they said. Finsta isn’t tantamount to an “authentic” self. It’s instead a different sort of performance, in which people can admit to flaws so long as they’re softened by humor.

Finstas and other doppelgänger accounts are typically intended for a selective audience—people you reallyknow, as opposed to looser circles of distant friends and acquaintances. One student described her Finsta followers as “just people that I’m generally close with and trust. Not that I post anything super scandalous or bad because I realize that if I post something on the internet, it could pop up somewhere that I wouldn’t want it to.”

According to my students, the central reason for creating a finsta isn’t to share risqué images, but simply to have an outlet for posts that might not jibe with the personal brand they are trying to present. As a college junior explained, noting that employers peruse her social media accounts, “Some of these people don’t share my same outlook on life and aren’t as liberal as I am…or maybe don’t party as much as I do….I don’t want them to think, ‘Oh, she’s just a party girl. Oh, I don’t want to work with her in the future.’’” She explained the importance of putting “my best self forward because you never really know who’s looking at your Facebook.”

Such acts of digital self-surveillance make sense against the backdrop of widespread media coverage of social media gaffes. We often hear about employees losing their jobs after publishing a distasteful image or a tactless Tweet. “I never really want to jeopardize my future by making myself vulnerable to that,” said the same student.

My undergraduates frequently tell me that they are more concerned about surveillance by employers than by the government, marketing institutions, or those in their social circles. And, so, rather than respond to finstas with moral panic, we need to recognize that they are usually created to circumvent a culture of incessant monitoring.

The desire to present oneself as “eminently employable” is a reality of a hypercompetitive job market. But we should also question the implications of an economic environment where young people are expected to be always on, with personal and professional melding together. According to this mindset, as one T-shirt aimed at startup careerists declares, 9-to-5 is for the weak.” Putting (future) work at the center of one’s personal universe leaves little room for much else—all at a time of life that is crucial to their identity formation.

More broadly, we should think about the long-term costs of socializing young people to accept employer monitoring of various kinds. Implanting a worker with an AI chip may seem far removed from screening a job candidate’s Instagram feed. But both reveal how corporate employers are exerting more and more power over our actions. What kind of lives do we lead when we assume that the boss is always watching?

Brooke Erin Duffy is the author of (Not) Getting Paid to Do What You Love: Gender, Social Media, and Aspirational Work and Remake, Remodel: Women’s Magazines in the Digital Age. Follow Brooke on Twitter.

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