This CHI 2020 paper studies how people use multiple accounts on Instagram, being the first to document personality differences between different accounts on the same platform.
Authors: Lee Taber, Steve Whittaker
Link: ACM Digital Library
Some Instagram users have multiple accounts on the platform, dubbed here and in common usage as “rinsta” (from “real Instagram”) and “finsta” (from “fake Instagram”). This is a phenomenon that isn’t exclusive to Instagram, but is certainly more common on Instagram compared to other social media. It’s also something that I, and many of my friends, have personal experiences with: rinstas are used as a curated, “highlight reel” that is typical of social media, while finstas often contain more authentic and more negative content.
By asking the question of how people behave differently across different accounts on the same platform, it becomes possible to control for the techncial affordances of a platform. The differences must instead be attributed to differences in social norms associated with each account.
The researchers gathered 88 students at their university who had two or more Instagram accounts. They were asked about their motivations for having multiple accounts, then completed a 44-item Big Five Inventory (a personality test). They participated in two interviews about their rinsta and finsta accounts, and took a modified BFI (about their “account” personality) after each interview.
There are significant (both statistically and practically) differences between finsta, rinsta, and offline personalities. Finstas rate higher on conscientiousness and extraversion than both rinstas and offline, and rate lower on agreeableness than rinstas and offline. In general, the participants’ finsta personalities were quite different than their rinstas and offline ones.
To me, this is the least interesting part of the paper, and I’m glad the authors didn’t spend that much time on it. The information available from interviews with 88 students is much richer than a statistical analysis of a personality test, though it’s good to see quantitative confirmation of their findings.
The primary reasons that people use finstas were, to me, unsurprising. The most common was to manage audiences by curating who can see their posts, and the second most common was self-expression by expressing themselves differently or more authentically on their accounts.
Generally speaking, participants’ rinstas were curated and wholesome, and their finstas were more authentic and often negative. The rinstas were for good memories and highlight reels, where people sought to project a positive self; the finstas often deliberately expressed their negative sides.
Like on [Rinsta], as does everyone, it is a little more polished, while on Finsta, it’s like “I’m crying in the library right now, I just want to let you all know!” [laughs]
The rinstas were more curated, too; people were more careful about the captions they used or the like / comment ratios, and otherwise spent more time thinking about what they posted. Meanwhile, the social context of finsta was to “let loose” and occasionally deliberately show off taboo behaviors or controversial opinions. The finsta setting (of a trusted audience) helped users to believe that their audience would be more sympathetic and accepting.
The study of rinstas vs. finstas is really interesting because you can control for the affordances of a particular platform. What’s left, then, is the social context in which people express themselves: what are the norms associated with a “real” social media account? What contributes to someone’s decision to post something on rinsta, post something on finsta, or not post it at all?
On the other hand, there was nothing in this paper that was surprising in any way. That people’s Instagram accounts are essentially highlight reels is completely consistent with the popular perception of what Instagram is. That people use finstas for venting or more authentic, in-the-moment self-expression is clear to anyone who follows a couple of finstas.
That’s not to say that it isn’t useful, as the study of how the same people behave two different ways on the same platform raises interesting questions about platform design. But overall, the reason that this paper was so easy to read is because the findings were confirming things that I knew to be quite obvious.
Once again, being able to study within-media behavior is rare; understanding how the same person uses the same platform in different ways is cool! According to the authors, media theory often considers media in isolation, but they instead need to consider both across-media and within-media perspectives.
This also rejects the idea that people have one “online presence”; rather, one might study what the authors call an “ecology of selves” across all forms of social media. Future theory, the authors quite radically argue, should also consider whether offline behavior is one’s “true” self.
The paper did not spend much time addressing mental health offline vs. on rinsta vs. on finsta, but this is an interesting potential extension. The authors claim that their participants did not use Instagram in this way:
Furthermore, while previous research shows that some people document their everyday mental health on Instagram , our participants were not doing this. Rather, Finsta represents a safe space to vent about a hard day to supportive and trusted friends.
I find this hard to believe given my own experiences following various friends’ finstas, but perhaps that’s a characteristic of the social circles that I’m a part of. Regardless, I would love to see further research that addresses this.