[Paper] Random, Messy, Funny, Raw: Finstas as Intimate Reconfigurations of Social Media

1763 words papers,

Another paper studying “finstas” (fake / secret Instagram accounts, shared only with a small group of people). This one, by Sijia Xiao et al., received an Honorable Mention at CHI 2020. In contrast to yesterday’s, this work draws from feminist theory to explore finstas as “intimate reconfigurations” of the Instagram platform itself.

Authors: Sijia Xiao, Danaë Metaxa, Joon Sung Park, Karrie Karahalios & Niloufar Salehi

ACM DL link: https://dl.acm.org/doi/abs/10.1145/3313831.3376424

Background and motivation

Yesterday’s paper explored how people’s personalities differ online (on both finsta and “rinsta”, or their “primary” / “real” Instagram account) and offline. This one studies in more depth how people actually use finsta, then goes on to posit that finsta users are themselves designers of Instagram by having reconfigured the platform to suit their needs.

That’s a lot, but the paper does a remarkable job of breaking down this complex behavior into an understandable framing.

The researchers interviewed ten participants who had finsta accounts, but were not permitted (by the IRB) to view their accounts. To fill this gap, they watched several public “exposing my finsta” videos on YouTube to analyze the content present on their finstas.

How people use finsta

Finsta is a form of self-expression, and the authors later frame it as a “performance.” Users exercise much more control over finstas than rinstas—mostly in being careful who they allow to follow them, and in one case proactively blocking users so that they would never discover the existence of a finsta account. In most cases, followers were added and removed as friendships came and went.

Most participants describe finsta as a place to present an alternative self. Finsta is seen as a place to post “any other things” not captured in public facing social media channels. P6 said, “I feel like for me, it’s a social media site that has everything that I wouldn’t put on any other social media.”

Rinstas, by contrast, are highly curated and polished. “Many participants reported spending significant time selecting, editing, and curating rinsta content.”

Sharing emotions: people share difficult or negative emotions on finsta, and they also use it as a space for reflection or in-the-moment thoughts. This is valuable to users’ mental and emotional well-being:

Participants found this outlet for negative emotions valuable, particularly in difficult times. P3 once deleted both her finsta and rinsta to limit her social media use, but after her friend experienced a tragedy, she restored her finsta: “I was feeling very lonely …so it was something emotional that happened in my life and that was what made me get on social media again.”

This raises tons of interesting questions! There have to have been studies about how people’s use of technology is linked to their mental health or short-term emotional state, and I’d love to read more about that.

The use of Instagram in this way is still interesting. On one hand, well, of course people need somewhere to express their negative emotions. That they carve out a space within social media to do that isn’t that surprising. But on the other, it’s clear that the platform Instagram wasn’t intended to be used in this way, and yet its users reconfigured it anyway.

The researchers also found that finsta was used to “vent and get emotional support and interact with others in ways that they found more meaningful and genuine." Users would use finsta to connect with friends and discuss sensitive issues. They would post on finsta as a form of therapy, sometimes to vent and others to receive support.

The greater depth of interactions and the audience of close friends combined to garner participants a sense of emotional support and psychological safety from their finsta accounts … The shared empathy and mutual emotional support strengthens relationships with those around them.

The interactions on finsta, the authors noted, “were perceived as meaningful and genuine.” This lies in contrast to the shallow, transient likes or emoji comments that typical Instagram has.

Intimate Reconfigurations

The researchers find that these users have “reconfigured” the platform of Instagram in three ways.

Idealized self => unserious messiness: finsta is a space to express imperfection. Contrast this to the manufactured highlights of a rinsta:

In response to rinsta norms of polished aesthetics and cultivating a personal brand, users’ finsta accounts reconfigure these in favor of unseriousness, humour, and imperfection.

One might say: “well, of course it does that! It’s a photo sharing app!, and they wouldn’t be wrong, but one must then question what the implications of a photo sharing app are.

By default, the platform will encourage people to share their best moments: consider how many steps you have to go through to post, or how the photos on Instagram stay on your profile forever (barring deletion). Finsta users reconfigure this de facto requirement—or maybe call it a norm or a pressure—by retaking control of what kinds of behaviors and images are considered acceptable.

Superficial interactions => deep engagements: finsta users reconfigure what the platform emphasizes as the basic ways of interacting with posts (likes and short comments, e.g., emoji). By instead posting longer captions or comments, finsta users create deeper engagements.

Obligate positivity => vulnerability: similar to the previous reconfiguration, finsta users reconfigure the platform’s intended use of presenting a positive, upbeat space. The natural framing of Instagram is as a highlights reel (literally—go look at their Story Highlights), which implies a kind of positivity that finsta users reject.

My Instagram is very curated […] It’s always really good photos of me, really good dance photos of me, or with friends when we’re all dressed up or going out or styled […] A lot of them are DSLR kind of photos, highly-edited, great color balance and all of that. (P5)

Instead, finsta users reported the space being one “where negativity, complaining, and vulnerability were acceptable.”

There’s another reconfiguration of the idea that Instagram is an image platform, too. Finsta users will occasionally post images and text that are unrelated to each other. (I know several people who post images of their pets accompanied by long, unrelated “stream-of-consciousness” captions.)

Who designs technology?

This paper devotes a section to asking the question of who is responsible for this reconfiguration.

The social norms and technical features that comprise finsta point to its users as designers of the sociotechnical assemblage. This is counter to the dominant view of design, which separates centers of innovation from peripheries where the fruits of that innovation are consumed [35, 36]. This view overlooks everyday design by users [63]. In online social spaces in particular, experiences are shaped more so by interactions with other actors (e.g. norms) than by the technology itself.

This is, I think, a hugely understated point. Technology does not exist in a vacuum.

I’ve argued this before from a very different perspective: that there’s no “category” of technology companies, like there are for telecoms or railroads. Google and Facebook are ad companies; Amazon is a retailer; Apple is in the business of hardware. Lumping “tech companies” together will lead to misleading conclusions, like that the US needs to “break up big tech companies."

A remarkably similar idea applies to technology platforms. Instagram is owned by Facebook, and their platforms exhibit many similar design choices (like Facebook taking Instagram stories, which itself was taken from Snapchat). Yet the social norms of Facebook and Instagram are quite different. The platforms are shaped by the people who use them.

The question of how these spaces come to be is really interesting! Parts of it are due to the platform’s design, obviously: Twitter’s 140-character limit isn’t good for longer discussions. Instagram emphasizes image content more heavily than Facebook does. Reddit’s default anonymity can more easily foster toxicity.

But it doesn’t stop there, and the users go on to contribute to how the platforms are used. The authors, drawing on feminist theory, frame this as the users are themselves designers, which I love!

We can see this kind of user-created variation across communities within a platform, too. A paper by Dr. Chancellor, “Norms Matter”, characterized how different communities on Reddit had different social norms for eating disorder and weight loss content.

Back to Instagram, though. Who are these people reconfiguring—redesigning—how Instagram is used? Usually young women. Quite a contrast, as the authors note, with the white male Silicon Valley founder!

The same women are typically responsible for a lot of the labor that sustains Instagram:

Feminist theory directs our attention to the often taken-for-granted labors that sustain complex socio-technical assemblages such as rinsta or finsta [59]. … Intimate labor or care work is the work of tending to the intimate needs of individuals such as health and hygiene maintenance, caring for loved ones, and sustaining social and emotional ties [9]. Based on our findings we argue that … finsta relies more heavily on the intimate labor of caring for close friends.

Instagram would be nothing without its users, right—no social media would. Feminist theory, the authors write above, takes this further and says that the mere act of using the platform is itself emotional and intimate labor. This labor, of caring for your friends, shapes Instagram itself.

This is very powerful. I think there’s a lot more to say here, but I haven’t worked through all of my thoughts yet, so that might come later.

Closing thoughts

If it wasn’t clear already, I really, really love this paper. Yesterday’s paper by Taber & Whittaker mentioned briefly how the mere existence of finstas contradicts the ideas behind technological determinism (that technology defines a society’s social and cultural values), but it didn’t go into detail on how.

That was, to me, the most interesting part of the paper. So today, I was excited to see this work deconstructing the entire sociotechnical apparatus surrounding Instagram. This is a rare paper which helped me formalize and put words onto ideas I’ve had before:

  • that social media is shaped by its users
  • that finsta is different from other social media
  • that “negative” content on finsta doesn’t mean it’s not a supportive space
  • that the vulnerability expressed on finsta is rare on social media, yet common within finsta
  • that Instagram isn’t designed for long-form conversations or posts, but finsta users do so anyway

Maybe this is “Man Learns About Gender Inequality” and none of this is really new—but the framing of finsta in terms of the feminist sociotechnical reconfiguration has helped me make sense of ideas that I only had fragments of before. I have so much more to read about as a result of this, and I’m extraordinarily grateful to the authors for such a thought-provking paper.