When I first made my Instagram account in 2015, I kept it public. I would post pictures with my friends, of landscapes, and sometimes with my then-partner. These were harmless pictures, very halal if you must; just groups of people laughing or standing. It never occurred to me that I had to make it private until my then-partner told me that his cousins and family had been keeping tabs on my account and throwing some off-handed comments his way. He said he wouldn’t want to curtail my freedom of expression but he must insist that I make it private. I was 21 at the time and very naive. But as a Pakistani woman, I wasn’t really unaware of these restrictions that are almost customary, and so after some back-and-forth arguments, I made it private because there are only so many battles you can pick as a woman in my country. The path of least resistance made the most sense to me at the time and I never went back to having a public account.
Over the years, my private account became more and more private. I explored who I am or could become as a person. I was also learning to express myself more openly and it just made sense to only have people on my account who would encourage that or wouldn’t judge me while I discover the many facets of my personality. So, I deleted and blocked people from my small hometown where everyone knew everyone, my extended family, some acquaintances, and basically, everyone who I thought would express disdain towards my self-expression. I would share emotions about my dead father, my exceedingly cautious nature – to the point of annoyance – as a woman in Pakistan, and sometimes pictures of myself in whatever clothes I wanted to wear, as a small act of defiance in a society otherwise laced with social control.
Then 2019 came. I moved to New York City for graduate studies.
Joining the bandwagon of finstas
For years, I had imagined myself living in the world metropolis independently and away from the judgement that comes with being a woman in Pakistan. Now that I was finally there, I needed to document and curate it, and put it out there in the world. It was not because I had something to prove or show to the world – not that it is an idea that repulses me in any way, but it was because I have always thought of myself as a performer. I like to have an audience, every now and then. I lived in Harlem, went to school around Greenwich Village, and explored the many faces and communities that the city harbours, and I knew I wanted to share it with an audience. So, I did. However, this is also when I further reduced the number of followers on my private Instagram account, mostly because I knew the gaze follows you around, even if you are not physically located in the country. I had to be as careful as I could.
I would share emotions about my dead father, my exceedingly cautious nature – to the point of annoyance – as a woman in Pakistan, and sometimes pictures of myself in whatever clothes I wanted to wear, as a small act of defiance in a society otherwise laced with social control.
This is when I was first introduced to the idea of turning my private account into a “finsta” by a friend. It made sense. Instead of shaving down my followers every few months, a finsta sounded convenient and permanent. If you are not aware, a finsta is a fake Instagram, not fake in the sense that it doesn’t belong to a real person but fake in the sense that it is very private, it is separate from your ‘real’ or main account. A finsta is an Instagram account that is just for those who you trust with the parts of your life that must remain away from the public; it is for close friends.
I turned my private account into a finsta and never looked back.
Is having a finsta a glamorous choice?
Since 2019, there have been talks that finsta is dying. It was implied that having a finsta was more of a status symbol; an exclusive club, and not necessarily a need, where you would post blurry photos from your night out or those of your close friends without worrying about curating a perfectly aesthetic Instagram feed. But over the past few years, this aesthetic has moved beyond closed accounts and has mostly been attributed to an overall evolving Instagram aesthetic; people, including celebrities, no longer have perfect grids.
During the pandemic, people learned to give up pretences even more. Some of the biggest accounts on the app, including Bella and Gigi Hadid, Dua Lipa, the Kardashians, and others, began posting blurry photo dumps on their main Instagram accounts, and with it, they blurred the lines between what you could post on your real Instagram and what goes on your finsta. Why have a separate account for close friends when you could just be your unfiltered self on your main account? And if you really needed to post something that you only wanted your close friends to see, you could just utilise the close friends feature on the stories. It all made sense.
While all of this is valid, it mostly holds true for the Global North. In the Global South, however, realities differ and that is not a novel notion, just the one that is frequently overlooked.
Pakistan is a conservative country; religiously and socio-politically. It is not an opinion or a mere fact, but a lived experience for the majority: women and queer folks in particular. You cannot possibly have an Instagram account, or any social media account for that matter, where you post your life uninhibitedly. It is not a performance that is or can ever be authentic. Incidents like the lynching of Mashal Khan – a student in Mardan University who was killed by his peers within the university for what a fake account under his name posted on Facebook, or the murder of Qandeel Baloch by her own brother for expressing herself on the internet, can all be traced back to what they posted on their social media accounts. Closed spaces, therefore, with access to specific people or only the people you trust have increasingly become a necessity.
As of early 2022, Instagram has 13.75 million users in Pakistan, of which approximately 35% are women but there is no real way to tell how many of these 13.75 million users identify as queer or non-binary. For the purposes of this story, however, I talked to a number of women and queer folks who are and have been avid users of Instagram, and finstas in particular. When asked about why they thought of making a finsta, the common threads among their answers were too significant to miss. There were snitches, screenshots, and just too much pressure to conform.
The other life that [people] express on their finsta, or a fake Instagram – the one that’s hidden from the public – ironically becomes a much more real and authentic creation of their lives for them.
Samar* (she/her), a 25-year-old content creator from Karachi, created a finsta after she saw her mother’s side of the family surveilling on her social media. Samar says she only ever accepts requests from people who she knows are into the same lifestyle as her, on her finsta. So far, she has only added her friends and a few people she has met on Twitter. When talking about what she usually posts on her finsta, Samar elaborated, “I either post photo dump type posts, or I’ll post pictures from a party, or basically whatever I feel like without the pressure of curating or conforming.” Zainab (she/her), a 22-year-old woman from Lahore, who works in marketing, also gravitated towards making a finsta after someone “snitched” on the posts she was sharing on her Instagram, to her family. Zainab reiterated that like many women in the country, she also lives a double life with her parents. After she was snitched on, her old account did not feel like a safe space anymore.
The double life that Zainab speaks of is a norm for a majority of Pakistani women. The other life that they express on their finsta, or a fake Instagram – the one that’s hidden from the public – ironically becomes a much more real and authentic creation of their lives for them.
Ariba* (she/her), a 26-year-old woman who currently lives in New York City and works in product design and development, went off Instagram for a while, during her university days. This was mostly because people in her friends' list would take screenshots of her posts and circulate them around, and that made her apprehensive of the platform. After she moved to New York, she revived her public account, but over time, wanted to mostly just share her work and not much of her face on this profile. This, as a result, brought down engagement on her posts. Ariba eventually made a finsta account where she has let 32 followers, including only the closest of friends and the people she trusts, be a part of her journey.
“I love posting videos of me dancing, sometimes with a cigarette in my hand because it makes me feel more relaxed. I don’t do it because I want to turn anyone on, I do it because I genuinely enjoy it,” Ariba explains in a matter-of-fact way.
Dara* (he/him), a 31-year-old queer writer based in Karachi, resonates with Ariba’s sentiments. He started his finsta mostly as a means for an open expression of himself. Over time, Dara has moved from just sharing pictures of him wearing “femme tops or clothes that only women are supposed to wear” to sharing unfiltered selfies (be it depressed/anxious selfies or just-woke-up selfies), videos of him singing and dancing, queer memes, and intrusive thoughts.
A sense of community and relevance through closed finsta
Harmony (she/her/he/him), a 25-year-old queer MBA student from Karachi, needed a space to just express herself where she doesn’t have to worry about her family’s reaction to her actions, and her finsta provided her that space. “I dance and do drag. Instagram filters let me do drag even at home, in my conservative family environment, where I cannot keep makeup and wigs. The filters give me that gender expression. There are even wig filters,” she explains.
A few years back, Misha* (she/her/they/them), a 23-year-old queer artist and writer from Lahore, got tired of the “hyperactive consumption” that Instagram accounts brought with them. “I wanted to detach myself from that, and from following a certain aesthetic. A finsta gave me that; my content was unhinged.”
A finsta, however, has become more than a space to just express yourself for a lot of these Pakistanis. It has brought people and communities together.
Gul Pasand (she/her/he/him/they/them), a 22-year-old-researcher and an academic from Karachi, made a finsta in 2013 when they were 13 years old. Before Gul knew what gender dysphoria was, they conflated it with eating disorders. After hitting puberty, they hated how their body changed and became curvier. In an effort to reverse this, they began following people on Instagram who did extreme dieting. They would follow them first to make sure they were not in their social circle and then let them follow their account. They eventually developed issues with their body image and shared suicidal thoughts which made Instagram content moderation system send them warnings. But later they met people with gender dysphoria within the eating disorder community that they became part of as they followed more and more accounts, and then over time, their body image got better as they shared their experiences with each other. Their negative self-talk has also taken a turn for the better. “We try to support each other and motivate ourselves to make good life choices or share government resources so we can transition in a healthy way. They inspire me to try and do more schooling abroad so I can have a safe career path and get surgery for transitioning,” Gul Pasand shares.
I wanted to detach myself from [hyper consumption of content], and from following a certain aesthetic. A finsta gave me that; my content was unhinged.
For many in Pakistan, finsta is the only outlet that lets them be.
As Dara* said and I quote, “I document myself dancing, stoned and sometimes drunk, it’s funny.”
But not everyone has similar liberating experiences of finstas. For instance, Sasha* (she/her), a 19-year-old freelance journalist from Karachi, made a finsta account in the summer of 2018. “I had previously deactivated my main account because of how toxic it was getting. I was obsessively monitoring my likes and story views.” She eventually made a finsta because she felt disconnected from her friends, and missed using Instagram as a source of inspiration for her work. She added her closest friends and followed her favourite people and pages. Sasha did not intend on posting anything there but then the option to post was “just there”, so she eventually did.
But Sasha’s safe space that she was trying to build on her finsta was invaded when one of her male cousins got access to her account through another cousin she had added on this account, and he was able to see a post where she shared a thread of pride charms and some art she owned with a “cute caption about pride month and just a small essay.” He threatened to expose her which she says “has ruined the space” for her. Sasha still posts sometimes but has since become wary of posting any unconventional thoughts that can later be held against her.
Striving for a safer online space
Sasha hopes for a finsta experience where her account is not recommended to people, and where there is an option to turn it off. She says that there have been instances of Instagram recommending her finsta to people she knows, and she’d like to avoid those awkward conversations completely. Whereas, Samar, the 25-year-old content creator from Karachi, says that the recommendation feature is the one thing she feels would affect her safety on the platform.
While you can disable your account from being shown in the “suggestions” when someone follows an account, there is no easy way to stop your profile from being recommended to others completely.
We try to support each other and motivate ourselves to make good life choices or share government resources so we can transition in a healthy way.
It is imperative to note that Facebook’s own researchers found evidence that the platform’s algorithmic recommendations breed polarisation. It was reported that “64% of all extremist group joins are due to [their] recommendation tools,” with a huge number of people joining at the suggestion of Facebook's "Groups You Should Join" and "Discover" algorithms. The company had known this since 2016 but chose not to do much about it, until it finally disabled the group recommendations feature in 2020, ahead of the US elections. Since Instagram is owned by Meta which also owns Facebook, it is a fair assumption to make that they are aware of what these algorithmic suggestions can do in terms of their users’ safety but choose to ignore the concerns.
Misha is frustrated by how the new Instagram “Suggested for you” feature brings follow suggestions to your stories. “It puts you on the radar. You even have the option to shuffle the suggestions [and see more suggested accounts],” they say.
But this is not the only concern of the people I interviewed. Many expressed that screenshots of posts and stories take a second to be circulated. Ariba, as a user experience designer herself, says that there should be a notification when someone takes a screenshot of your post or stories, especially when you are using your finsta. “If Instagram can introduce vanish mode for the Direct Messages, it should not be a big deal to introduce screenshot notifications as a feature for stories and posts as well.”
For a number of Pakistani queer folks and women, this is far from ideal. Misha’s last finsta was hacked, and they had no idea. Instagram didn’t let them log in one day out of nowhere, and that was it. According to them, they “tried everything from submitting reports to trying every password they could think of.” It went on for a good month or so until one day, they randomly tried logging in and it worked. They instantly got a security notification that their account was active somewhere else even though the only device they had ever used their finsta on until that point was their phone. This was a huge cause for concern for them. It took them over a month to figure out what had happened and even then, they could not fully understand how it happened. Ever since Misha has been apprehensive about their security. They think Instagram needs to be more proactive about letting you know if your account is active in more than one or two places or devices. Even two-factor authentication does not help them feel safe enough.
My sister once told me that there are different ways to be brave. Her words have stuck with me throughout the years maybe because they comforted me, in a way. I have always been cautious, too cautious at times. I want to have fun but I prefer living a dual life most times; it’s easier, convenient, and hassle-free. I don’t mind being two different people if it means I don’t have to convince people to accept a version of me that is too far from who they think I am. I can be a slightly less out-there version of me, and that’d be alright. Simultaneously, I am okay being my more out-there self with people who will understand; a finsta gives me that.
Perhaps a finsta is how I choose to be brave.