Sam Rosenberg: Deconstructing virtual identity and self-expression on Instagram

Tuesday, September 27, 2016 - 6:27pm

Having an account on social media is like living a double life. On the internet and our mobile devices, we show the parts of ourselves that we want people to see, but not necessarily the entire picture of who we are. We frequently display the good parts of ourselves, not the more vulnerable aspects of our personality and daily life. Essentially, what we create, produce and express online becomes our virtual identity.

Since the dawn of the modern selfie, Instagram has become one of the more prominent determinants of virtual identity in the digital age, totaling about 400 million users since December 2015. Facebook and Twitter have given people the agency to connect with friends and post their personal thoughts on specific issues, but Instagram has been the forefront of showcasing the image and lifestyle of a person.

Along with every other social networking site/app, Instagram is a program that feeds us the autonomy to present what we want to our friends and followers through sharing photos underscored with funny, witty and thought-provoking captions. But more importantly, it’s how we present ourselves on Instagram that dictates the kind of person we want to be perceived as online. Two recently growing trends on Instagram, “finstas” and “thirst traps,” have established just how our virtual identities can either feel genuine or excessively distorted.  

Finstas? Thirst traps? What are these strange words you speak of? Don’t worry, Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers. Let me break it down. A “finsta” is short for “finstagram,” a combination of “fake” and “Instagram”; the word itself refers to a second, private Instagram account users create in order to post funny, embarrassing photos of themselves, only for their closest friends to see. Though a finsta is deemed as something “fake,” the irony of it is that a finsta account is the closest thing your friends have to seeing an unfiltered, real version of yourself.

“Finstas provide an opportunity to post things without the typical barriers of social media,” said Engineering senior Susan Rusinowski. “It allows users to reclaim the platform and have fun without the fear of being judged.”

Rusinowski is among the multitude of mostly high school and college-aged students around the country who’ve created a finsta account. In addition to being more unfiltered (literally and figuratively), finstas are also less concerned with creating and publishing the perfect picture with the perfect caption, acting almost like a personal photo diary exclusively for the eyes of the users and a select group of people. In fact, finstas can even have the power to build self-esteem. Rusinowski notes that having a finsta has made her a lot more open about herself, as well as less embarrassed at funny or unflattering pictures of herself on social media.

“It’s forced me to be more real about my day to day life on social media and feel more comfortable laughing at myself,” she said.

This contrasts greatly to the other popular trend on Instagram, the “thirst trap,” which, according to Urban Dictionary, is any photo or statement on a social media platform, especially on Instagram, posted to intentionally create attention or “thirst.” A thirst trap can be anything as suggestive as a steamy workout selfie or as explicit as an almost completely nude, just-got-out-of-the-shower photo.

Make no mistake: thirst traps are not the same as ordinary Instagram users posting selfies. There’s a huge difference between posting a selfie for the sake of attention, showing off your sexiness, a photo blog tracking your health and fitness progress or a post with a body-positive message. In any case, posting photos of yourself is in and of itself a form of flaunting. Yet thirst trappers capitalize on this flaunting by objectifying their bodies and publishing totally perfected versions of themselves.  

Take English thirst trapper Liam Jolley (132k followers), for example. Nearly all of the photos that appear on his Instagram profile are shirtless, nearly nude pictures of himself, whether at the gym, in the bathroom or by a luxurious pool (note: the phrase “TURN ON POST NOTIFICATIONS” is emblazoned in his bio). Most thirst trappers, such as Jolley, attempt to relate to their audience, captioning their photos with common phrases or an abundance of hashtags, even when they have literally nothing to do with the photos themselves.

While thirst traps may have the most benevolent of intentions, they can have a negative, even detrimental impact on the users themselves, as it can affect men and women suffering from body dysmorphia and eating disorders. A recent article on Out.com changed that most thirst trappers, predominantly gay men, are suffering from body dysmorphia, having to exercise and take photos of themselves constantly in order to feel somewhat better about their self-perception.

This all goes back to this idea of not just how we want to present ourselves on social media, but whether or not we are willing to be more vulnerable on our online accounts. Based on my observations, I find that finstas allows us to embrace our flaws, while regular Instagram allows us to hide them, and thirst traps allows us to repress them excessively. Sure, it’s nice to look at attractive people and there’s almost nothing like the dopamine rush you get when your profile picture or the gorgeous pic you took of the sky gets a ton of likes. Then again, anything we post, publish and share isn’t necessarily 100 percent of who we are. Sometimes, it’s who we want to be. Though it may be impossible, we should strive to at least try to be the realest person we can be on social media.