Last summer when I visited my teenage cousin F. in Virginia, she tipped me off to the fact that many of the students at her high school have both private and public Twitter accounts. Despite adult anxieties about confessional culture and the end of privacy online, for her and her classmates, the public is not the personal, and the two are stringently demarcated.
On F.’s public Twitter account, her content revolves around her woke, meme-obsessed friend group. They love taking selfies and sharing old vines, and they loathe Trump — at least that’s as much as they’re willing to share with their real names attached. Their personal accounts, known as alts, are semi-anonymous — meaning they’re not necessarily identifiable by searchable info, and only a select few are invited to follow them. On these accounts, F. and her friends showcase their burgeoning sense of humor and style (or at least I am told), as well as their juvenile political incorrectness that, if attached to their government names, could impede college and job prospects and alienate their parents.
I’ve used alts to dump my real feelings and anxieties into the ether. But writing in 140 characters in private feels like a form of publishing isolated from the din of the rest of the internet
Alt accounts allow for a form of communication as intimate as what an anonymity app like Tbh might allow, but also accountability — your alt account presents a version of “you” that you’d like to claim, but for a limited audience, under more hospitable conditions than the internet commons can provide. When I’ve dabbled with alts myself, I’ve used them to dump my real feelings and anxieties into the ether — emotions I might not want a stranger to associate with me like the rage I tend to stifle, or the immense pity I feel for myself at times. But writing in 140 characters in private feels like a form of publishing, where I can make space for the person I am — a wounded girl — from the safety of a silo isolated from the din of the rest of the internet. Publishing for an audience of friends, as opposed to addressing them by direct message, is a meaningful and distinct form of communication. I can interact with my friends as my alt and create a small community around a side of my identity.
The fewer followers an alt has, the more exclusive it can seem, like a special club or maybe a condemned house. But perhaps a more apt analogue is the overshare blogging popularized by communities on Livejournal and Diaryland in the late ’90s and early 2000s. Before Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, online journals did the work that social media sites perform today, offering a publishing platform with customizable levels of privacy (lock account, hide follow or follower lists). As much as these sites were places to journal, they were also social networks that still felt like an alternative to “real” life. When you wrote under your journal avatar, it was tacitly understood that you were presenting a more private version of yourself, not just for safety reasons, but to eschew the expectations of daily life. You might want to tell an audience how you really felt that day in class, just not an audience of your classmates. Likewise, alt accounts are not only meant to evade the attention of authority figures, but to represent the breadth of one’s identity.
According to writer Meredith Haggerty, who first reported on alts back in 2015, alts are “private accounts with curated follower lists.” Twitter alts have garnered minimal attention, with most of the coverage of alts devoted to Instagram, which started encouraging the use of secondary accounts this year. As Madeline Kircher writes for New York Magazine’s Select All, “In February, Instagram rolled out a feature that lets users toggle between multiple accounts. It’s a handy tool. Brand managers everywhere rejoiced. Now, as spotted by Twitter user Pat Murray, Instagram is promoting the feature as a way to create a secondary account for sharing posts with a smaller, curated group of users.”
My 21-year-old sister is no stranger to the secondary Instagram account — also known as finstagram, a portmanteau of fake and Instagram. She wanted a space to eschew posting etiquette. On her finstagram, she posts a vision board-like pink-purple constellation of Cartoon Network’s Steven Universe images. On her regular Instagram, one that’s followed by strangers and friends alike, she posts less frequently and she rarely posts images from Steven Universe because she doesn’t want to lose normie followers, who are followers all the same. Both my cousin F. and my sister’s alts allow them to creatively construct avatars and be at ease among friends, but my sister’s is for less practical reasons than job or college opportunities, tailoring her online presence to the people she wants to follow her.
T., a friend of mine, tells me that while her Twitter is “her” — a 20-something media professional — her finstagram is the real “her,” as in, the version of herself unmediated by external judgments and expectations. It allows her to evade the gaze of judgmental family members, namely her strict Muslim parents, by playing out “an alternate reality outside the realm of policing authorities.” This is the case for many Muslim women. In fact, one could argue Muslim women started the finstagram trend, before there was a name for it, because so many have become well-versed in the double life: being two different people depending on who is looking.
Public and alt accounts for F., T. and my sister work in tandem as mechanisms of self-preservation and self-presentation, helping them construct a more authentic online experience — one that follows more from their own creative instincts and emotional impulses than from predictions of who might be watching.
So many have become well-versed in the double life: being two different people depending on who is looking
There is always potential for misuse, and many use alt accounts to the opposite effect — to say terrible things without consequences, or try on identities they shouldn’t. The account @PersianLA27, which has posted racist and erratic content in the past, has been alleged to be Amanda Bynes’s alt; Bynes has long denied this, claiming hacking and harassment. “I don’t have to deal with the consequences on here,” the account holder told me via DMs. “What consequences?” I ask, to which they reply, “A 5150 hold, among other things.”
Having an alt account when you’re highly visible seems like a high-res example of the need to be, or not be, a certain kind of person in public. More innocuous examples include Matt Drudge’s rumored alt dedicated to an Israeli DJ. (“Matt Drudge has a massive Twitter following for his politics news but Matt Drudge is a human, and humans have many interests. He happens to love house music,” writer Katie Notopoulos told me last year. “And he knows his main Twitter audience doesn’t want to hear about his music opinions, so he made an alt account just for that.”) James Comey confirmed his alleged twitter alt, which Ashley Feinberg had reported on for Gizmodo; Adele has said that she has a secret Twitter account for things her managers discourage her from saying in public. Having an alt seems like an opportunity to swap a high-stakes profile for a low-stakes one, and use social media as non-famous people do. Of course, everyone can be held to the contents of their public profile; for non-famous people too, an alt account might be like using social media before this was the case.
Alt accounts can be fleeting and ephemeral. Your current fears, pretensions and enthusiasms may give you the jarring pause of a photo of yourself taken by someone else, making you ask yourself, “Who is she?” Which is to say, an alt is a snapshot representing a performance of self; it may look nothing like you tomorrow, just internet simulacrum. But it’s also a powerful self-positioning tool, and a journal, helping us construct identities online and meet the greater demands of appropriateness. Our social media accounts may be limited forms of self-representation, but at least we can have more than one.