I wanted bigger shoulders, so of course I checked Instagram. Ryan Spiteri suggested using a plate-loaded shoulder press with a “1 and ½” technique across four sets with a 90 second rest period. Chauncey Wright advised something called “snow angels” to help build medial delts. There were other suggestions from other trainers, too: pull-ups, dumbbell thrusters, a front delt-focused shoulder press. Over time, I incorporated each of these recommendations into a successful routine, handily cataloged in one place—under “Posts I’ve Liked”—for easy, chaos-free consumption. And even though it was on Instagram, which lets you monitor everything your friends like, no one ever knew.
For the last six months I’ve harbored a secret: a second, private Instagram account. Since joining the service in 2013, I’ve sporadically used the platform to upload selfies, childhood photos, and remarkably unimpressive shots of the New York City skyline. (#manhattanhenge, everyone!). Strangely and surprisingly, though, I’ve found more seduction, and benefit, in my private account.
Creating a “finsta”—a gummy portmanteau of “fake” and “insta”—wasn’t obvious at first. The trend is especially popular among teens who want to showcase a less curated, more genuine outlook separate from their main account. You at your most translucent you. Typically, finstas are highly honest, unedited, and topic-focused: inspirational dog memes; stream-of-consciousness uploads; no-makeup selfies. Only for the closest family members and friends, and aggressively resistant to Instagram’s usual aesthetic strictures.
At the onset, it was less about escape, or even self-awareness. It was pure utility: I wanted to get better at something. I started seriously working out around 2016, and like most new gym converts, had enthusiasm but no concrete plan. Eventually I developed a consistent approach: moving beyond “back day” or “leg day” to more holistic “push” or “pull” days; tinkering with my diet; upping my cardio regimen. I was seeing results. I felt good. But by this past spring, I had plateaued—working out constantly, six days a week, but with moderate results. I soon realized that I could only get so far by myself.
I thought to hire a trainer, but the astronomical prices were a quick, easy deterrent. That’s when it hit: I’d create a separate Instagram account and populate my feed solely with fitness experts, bodybuilders, and nutritionists. Self-improvement needn’t be a public affair, despite Strava’s sharing options and the countless #fitspo tags proliferating across social media; this would be strictly for me.
At some juncture in its winding arc, Instagram became an ecosystem built less on exploration than on self-interest. Communities evolved, and with it so did the obsessions of its users. Everything began to feel plastic. Everyone felt less real, as if choreographing an ideal lifestyle—the Greatest Hits, the Highlight Reel. With increasing frequency, feeds were clogged with moments of staged happiness: photos from a boozy Sunday brunch, or a victory pose atop LA’s Runyon Canyon, or, more often than not, photos from extotic desinations—stunning shots of sunrise during a trip to Santorini, or a beach selfie with the glaring geotag “Rio de Janeiro” or “Ko Samui.” With each new day, the gulf widened, the distance between who one actually was versus who he performed to be online.
My alt account sidestepped this noise entirely. The nagging social obligation to follow family members, friends, or colleagues was completely gone. And, for the most part, I’m unencumbered from all the performative gestures that the app has enabled. My feed is wholly, painstakingly free of clutter, its utility singular and precise: a constantly updating catalog of workouts, nutritional tips, and fitness advice from experts like Julian Smith and Obi Vincent.
It’s too early to tell if I’ve lost anything from this tradeoff—I’d say about 70% of my time on Instagram is apportioned to my alt account—although I have noticed two natural adjustments in my consumption habits to my main profile: the most obvious being, I spend substantially less time liking photos. More interestingly, my output has spiked. I’ve become even more prolific in my use of Instagram Stories; it’s an odd, frenzied form of communication that I’ve found all the more alluring for its 24-hour lifespan.
I’ve been on the platform for five years, but only now do I feel like I’m getting substantive, real-world use from it. That’s not to say there was no joy being mined from friends’ cute baby videos or gossip about black celebrities via the latest Shade Room update. I still regularly check in on my main account. It’s just that now, I can’t help but feel like I’m using Instagram as it was intended to be used. That perhaps at its most useful the service can be a tool for learning and discovery, an infinite portal into new terrains.
Or at least help me get bigger shoulders.