Leah Nepo's public-facing Instagram account features a color scheme she intended to match her steely blue eyes. With exactly six photos — a couple of beach scenes, a sunset — 1,163 people are following it.
But it's her second Instagram account — the one she created last year that's unpolished and unpretty — where she posts multiple times a day from a mundane, real life: when she ate Chick-fil-A just because she woke up early, or the day that was "awful."
This is her fake Instagram. Her "Finsta."
"For main accounts, it's more like, 'Look how pretty I am, look how pretty this is,' " said Nepo, a 14-year-old freshman at Penncrest High School in Middletown Township, Delaware County, "whereas [Finsta] can show your personality more … it's a lot more laid back, and you kind of do whatever with it."
And who makes these rules?
"I guess," she said, "society does."
Teenagers, college students, and young adults across the country are increasingly creating private, "fake" Instagram profiles that act as off-brand, modern-day journals to share with a select group of friends. Whether it's a rant attached to an ugly selfie, a photo of a wild party, or a bizarre meme about an inside joke, the fake account is real.
Or at least more real than "real Instagram" — Rinsta — where perfection is projected through filtered images, whether for peers, parents, or potential employers.
"This generation seems to feel like they have to post the best version of themselves," said Marianne Hynd, vice president of operations at the Social Media Research Association in Charlotte, N.C. "They think they have to be perfect. Finsta might give them a little break from that."
Here's how it works: A user who wants to create a Finsta, or "spam," account logs out of his or her real Instagram account and creates a new, private account with a fake name and a fake profile photo. Once the Finsta is born, the user often follows only other Finsta accounts created by his or her friends, creating a timeline that's effectively a clique's stream of consciousness.
Danelis Giaz, 20, a student at the Moore College of Art and Design, said "real Instagram" is for "the good and the pretty," and her three-month-old Finsta is a safe space to express feelings or rehash awkward encounters.
"If my morning is going bad, I'll write a whole essay and I'll post it with me looking really tired," she said. "Or if I drop something, I'll take a picture and be like, 'Why?' "
Both of Giaz's fake and real accounts are carefully curated. But her Finsta? "I'm more likely to talk about the last time I cried."
The Finsta trend is gaining popularity and is a symptom of the younger generation's tendency to spend less time in person with friends and more time online cultivating an image, according to Jean Twenge, author of iGen: Why Today's Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood — and What That Means for the Rest of Us.
It's also the backlash of such tendencies. When a person invests so much energy creating and then projecting an image that matches a brand — I am popular, I am cool — inevitably, what's authentic needs to come out in a place where there's some sense of emotional safety. People change, too, and none more so than adolescents. So, dumping old accounts for new ones might better reflect their growth and changing perspective.
Of course, status and standing have always been important to teenagers. But Twenge argues that today's young people have it harder than previous generations: Their popularity is quantifiable and visible to everyone they know.
"Now you can put a number on it," she said. "It's like, 'I have this many followers. I have this many likes on my picture.' "
"Attractive" photos rack up those coveted likes and followers, Twenge said, in a way that sharing "true feelings" doesn't. Enter Finsta.
However, these profiles largely hidden from public view aren't all sappy anecdotes and raw teen angst. Reef Alhatab, a 21-year-old Drexel student who lives in Center City, hardly uses her primary Instagram account anymore, which has some 680 followers. Instead, she uses her Finsta — 19 followers — to post photos from bars and parties that she wouldn't want people she's "not close with" to know about.
When she recently posted a selfie with a guy she met at a bar, comments from her closest friends poured in. Alhatab said it's an easier version of a group text.
Alcohol, drugs, and other risky behaviors are popular Finsta themes.
But for Nepo, Finsta is less about hiding behavior from her family and more about getting feedback from friends on everyday problems.
"She's probably one of many teenagers," her father, Jeff, said, "that can spend hours upon hours upon hours talking to her friends on the phone through Instagram."
In fact, Leah, the self-described "phone geek" — she estimates that on school days, she spends six to eight hours a day on her Samsung Galaxy S7 — says it's her Finsta community where she feels most connected to friends and the world around her.
"It's just a very comforting place to be," she said, "especially in an age when technology is becoming a very big and scary thing."