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how queer teens are using instagram’s ‘close friends’ function to open up

More and more of us are shunning the main TL, instead embracing smaller, safer spaces to discuss sexuality, mental health, and identity.

by Kelsey Barnes
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23 May 2019, 7:30am

Image via Instagram.

A few months ago I had a discussion with friends regarding the issues we were having with social media. “I just don’t feel like I really have a place to just be me, which was the whole point of Facebook when we signed up for it in 2007,” pleaded my friend. “How do I have all of these ‘friends’ following me but don’t even know anything about me?”

The initial appeal of social media was the ability to connect with so many people at once; privacy wasn't something anyone was concerned with. The personal details we shared to whoever was following became an addiction; the more we shared, the more we felt validated. Now so many of us are tired at keeping up appearances, posting every intimate detail of our lives online and forgetting to actually live them, minute to minute.

But a (relatively) recent development in the oversaturated social media world of oversharing has offered some respite. Instagram's 'close friends' function, launched at the end of 2018 as a response to the trend of users choosing to share and communicate with friends privately rather than publicly online, has emerged as an online safe space for teens still finding their identity, and wary of posting that self-discovery publicly online. Nowhere is the need for privacy more potent than with Generation Z. The first generation to grow up completely online, Gen Z represent the world's first natively digital youth, and perhaps that's why more and more of us are keeping our accounts completely private. Shunning the posturing of millennials and baby boomers, Gen Z teens are embracing Insta's close friends function to communicate solely with people they trust.

According to Social Media Today, 85% of private messages shared on Instagram are between the same three friends and, when compared to traditional forms social media, Social Media Today discovered private messaging apps like Messenger and WhatsApp are growing at a much faster rate due to the desire to communicate in a more private space.

When Close Friends first launched, it did seem like another way to make Instagram similar to private messaging apps. But a few months after the launch it seemed that people were using the close friends function less for private conversations and more and more in their day to day lives. Although the regular story feature tends to be an extension of the account—crafted and curated like a highlight reel—the close friend feature is different. While Instagram stories are as popular as ever for photos of bottomless brunches and nights out, the close friends function invites us into each others’ personal lives, broaching previously ‘private’ topics like depression and sexuality.

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Leanna Lucero, a professor from New Mexico State University, has researched online spaces as safe places for Generation-Z and LGBTQ+ individuals. When comparing offline spaces—like workplaces and classrooms—to social media, Lucero discovered social media acts as a safety net for LGBTQ+ youth by allowing them to “communicate and express themselves with an invisible audience.” Rather than expressing their true selves in spaces that could be toxic, Lucero found that 68% of teens surveyed preferred to use social media as a way to have conversations because they felt it’s easier and a safe place where they can be themselves without judgment. By using social media as a way for LGBTQ+ and Gen-Z individuals to be more open about who they are, it gives them the chance to explore their gender and sexual identity in their own way.

For Emily, an American college student with a creative Instagram account with over 100k followers, this was the case. Her following is supportive and engaged; they respond when she asks questions and any photo she publishes is guaranteed to receive 1000+ likes. On her public Instagram story you’ll see an extension of her feed; her creative work, videos relevant to the community she has built and selfies. It wasn’t until I noticed a series of Close Friend stories where I got a glimpse into who Emily really was: someone who was excited about having a crush on a girl, but wasn’t out to her family yet. When I ask her why she opts to use the private feature when she has such a large and engaged following. “I use it to share things I don’t want the larger public and family to know yet.”

Before seeing Emily’s story, I wasn’t aware of her sexuality. As we talked about the Close Friend feature, I discovered the main factor behind her decision to only discuss her sexuality privately was based on the fear of her family finding out. “It’s complicated because I want to post freely about it but I still live with family who are disapproving, so there’s a fear factor there,” she says. “Posting about it under a close friends group creates a safe space for me.”

Emily describes Close Friends as a sort of online safe space. This is something Tanya (not her real name) agrees with. “My close friends [on Instagram] are going to be loving and non-judgmental about whatever I post, so the feature does create a safe space for me,” she says. “I share things I wouldn’t be comfortable sharing to everyone; things that would make me worry about what people think of me or how they might judge me.” When asked how she navigates discussing different topics publicly and privately, Tanya stated the only topics she doesn’t feel comfortable posting about to everyone was anything relating to her sexuality, dating history or gay culture because she isn’t out to her family yet.

Another topic that many utilise the feature for is mental health. Andrew*, a 19 year old university student from Toronto, feels he is more open about his struggles because of Close Friends. “I use my regular Instagram stories just like my regular account; it’s aesthetic photos and selfies of me.” “The stories I post just for my close friends are much less aesthetic, but on Close Friends I am very open about how bad my mental health is”, Andrew explains. Like Andrew, Tanya also chooses to disclose her mental health struggles to her close friends only, as opposed to the main TL. “If I post anything about my mental health, even if it’s an exaggeration for comedic effect, I wouldn’t want random people to see it as it still feels personal. Especially as I work in mental health, if I made some kind of joke about it I would worry a colleague could see it.”

When compared to Millennials—a generation of public oversharers online—Generation Z is much more apprehensive with everyone knowing their personal business. A study found privacy is important to Generation Z; they prefer to post time-sensitive content because it expires and protects their privacy from unwanted viewers and prevents content from resurfacing at a later time. Close Friends is similar to Snapchat, a social media network where users can pick and choose who receives photos, which announced 85% of its Gen-Z users would rather have a few close friends than a large group of friends they aren’t close to.

The advent of online safe spaces like Instagram’s Close Friends function is something queer millennials, who grew up online without that element of privacy, could only dream of. “When I was 17 I wasn’t out to my family,” Tyler, a 24-year-old from Ontario, tells i-D. “While I was using Facebook, I had to make sure my settings were changed so they couldn’t see my updates.” Although he was able to utilise the block settings on Facebook, Tyler says he “would've loved to have the close friend feature” so he could pick exactly who he wanted to share his private life with.

The shift for more private communities is one that is being welcomed by younger people, and with good reason. Social media was meant to be a catalyst for connection but the highly curated nature of Instagram’s main feed lends itself instead to unhealthy comparison and posturing. It’s features like Close Friends that help us connect and better understand what each other is going through. The ability to speak openly, but privately, with a selected group of people about things that are as silly as memes and as serious as sexuality and mental health could be freeing and, in return, life-changing for those who are still in the process of figuring out who they are.

*Some names have been changed to keep anonymity