Screenshot of Black Mirror episode “Nosedive” via Youtube

Imagine a world, one that very much resembles our own, set in some not-too-distant, semi-dystopian future. A sort of bizarro version of our modern Western society, where the increasing imposition upon society of otherwise benign technology and social media has warped the very fabric and structure of our lives and culture in insidiously dark ways. In a phrase, a world that is something of a “Black Mirror” of our current day and age.

In this world, imagine a young woman—let’s call her Natalia Martinez, though she could just as easily be named Harley Barber, or any number of names. Natalia is an 18-year-old college freshman originally from Florida. She attends Georgia State University where she is delighted to represent the school on the women’s soccer team. Natalia is probably like most other college freshmen—a young, hopeful, eager, naive but well-meaning young person excited to finally have escaped from under the thumb of her parents and really throw herself wholeheartedly into the freedom of young adulthood. These are to be, as the saying goes, the best years of her life.

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Only there’s a problem: she’s apparently kind of racist. Not only that, but she gets exposed as a racist after a social media post she intended to be private, in which she uses the word “nigger” for no apparent reason, gets leaked online and goes viral. Natalia becomes the object of scorn for thousands of her fellow students and countless more faceless people on the internet. She is suspended from the soccer team as the university attempts to distance itself from their student’s words, and ultimately she withdraws from school entirely. A straightforward morality tale about a racist receiving her just comeuppance.

Maybe there’s more to consider. Let’s imagine that in Natalia’s pocket of the world, the projection of carefully manicured and ever-accessible public profiles is the primary vehicle for the cultivation and display of individual identities. These shared online profiles, obsessively updated and monitored by the users who produce and engage with them, arise originally as ways for friends and family to share pictures with one another. A quick and easy documentation of everyday life.

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Almost immediately, though, these profiles—let’s call them Instagram pages—drift from being quotidian photo diaries of an average individual’s average, mostly boring but at times beautiful or ugly or profound daily life, and instead transform into something else. Scrolling through their Instagram feeds, users begin to notice that the most popular accounts are those run by gorgeous, perfectly symmetrical faces that rest atop exquisitely toned bodies, these bodies surrounded exclusively by high-end products, the seemingly professionally lit selfies taken while these bodies frequent scores of ritzy restaurants and boats and parks and hotels.

Upon seeing these idyllic lives of the young and happy and wealthy, a pang of insecurity gnaws at the pit of these users’ stomachs. If social media accounts depict who we are in a significant way, an entire generation of people think to themselves, and who these other people are are perfect individuals, with their perfect hair and perfect meals and perfect politics and perfect happiness, then what do people think of me with my bedhead selfies and my dinnertime bowl of Lucky Charms and my political ambivalence and my comparatively sad and boring life? And how can I hide this true, inner life of mine and substitute it for a prettified version so that people will see me how I want to be seen, as successful and happy and busy and valued? And what other mechanism for this validation of myself and my life could I want other than lots of likes on my posts?

Because of this kind of thinking, Instagram pages start to serve more as their users’ cover letters than personal journals. The pressure to always be “on,” to always look your best and be doing your best with your best smile and in your best outfit, saps an important aspect of what the account was intended to provide all along, which is genuine connection of your true self with others. Instead of this, Instagram becomes a source of anxiety as much as one of affirmation, where users attempt to gloss up their everyday lives in order to better project the kind of cool and positive image of a life they see as so prevalent elsewhere on their friends’ and idols’ pages, and are rewarded not with deep communication and connection but with the intoxicating allure of attention. Everyone knows what everyone else is doing, everyone knows these pages are in some real sense “fake,” and yet no one can stop participating in it. Your rational mind can tell you that this is all fake and silly, but it can’t tell your pulse not to quicken when you check your photos and see dozens of likes.

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While Instagram continues to thrive in this more superficial vein—its users almost literally addicted to the application, always checking in on friends’ and strangers’ lives, consciously and subconsciously comparing those lives to their own, respite only coming when photos of their own are well received and get attention, which is most easily achieved by mimicking the attractive but hollow kinds of aspirational photos of popular Insta users—the desire for more “real” self-expression remains. What if someone has less gussied-up, more wantonly risqué pictures of themselves they’d like to share for fun, but didn’t want those pics to impugn their preferred online image, and anyways didn’t want them broadcast on their open pages which are followed by aunts and cousins and potential love interests? What if, during a time of depression or existential angst, this person wanted to depict themselves dealing seriously with these negative emotions privately to a small number of close friends, without feeling the need to always present the rosiest version of their lives? What if someone wanted to explore the boundaries of language and propriety and offensiveness in photos and in words, but didn’t want the blowback that would surely come were these photos and words easily discoverable by those less sympathetic to the user?

While it would seem that one plausible solution to some of these problems would be to unplug from this messy and inherently unsatisfying world of social media and attempting to be a more present participant in offline life, Instagram’s hooks are set too deep into most people for that to be a realistic option. To compensate, this world saw the rise of “Finsta” pages. A portmanteau of “fake” and “Insta,” Finstas are basically burner Instagram accounts and are generally secret, anonymized, and have their access restricted only to a specific number of hand-picked followers. Finstas allow users to let their hair down, so to speak, to post photos and captions and comments without worrying so much about maintaining a façade of individual perfection and projecting that to the large number of those who would peruse them. The angles of photos don’t have to be perfect for Finsta, thoughts need not be meticulously parsed for whether or not they’d support or detract from the idealized person the user wanted to be perceived as, things like sadness or anger or frustration or impolitic opinions could fly without fear of judgment. Only certain people could see all this, and they generally were the trusted sort. In a way, then, the “fake Insta” pages had the promise of being even more honest and true than the “real Instas” the Finstas were created to bypass.

Only a funny thing began to happen. Because Finstas have the air of secrecy, of the risqué, of say-whatever-you-want-because-no-one-who-sees-it-will-mind, they become home to outright offensive and objectionable speech. Much like the greater anonymous internet, this anonymity—or at least the appearance of selective consumption of hard-to-access pages—leads many users to venture out into the realm of taboo on their Finsta pages, if for no other reason than they can.

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If you could say whatever you wanted, show any kind of picture that you know would look bad in the intensely socially policed public Instagram pages that hold so much sway over your life and reputation and feeling of self worth, why not test the boundaries of the restrictive above-ground world when given the cloak of anonymity? Let’s be clear: what this means is that white kids start using the cover of Finstas to as a place to start saying the word “nigger.”

Not always “nigger” directly. It could be “serggin cuff,” which when played back in reverse becomes “fuck niggers.” Other times, as in the case of Natalia, it could be “NIGGERSSS,” which according to certain media accounts counts as an alternate “version” of the correctly spelled slur. And, should this story be one about Harley rather than Natalia, it could be pure, unadulterated “niggers” repeated unapologetically over and over in a succession of Finsta videos.

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The end result is the same, though. Through the maintanence and projection of increasingly fractured personal identities—layers and layers of meaning which change depending on whether any given action or speech occurs in real life, online in a named and public social media page, or online in an anonymized fake account that at the same time purports to be more true to the underlying person’s real self—these white kids can’t resist the thrill of saying that most unsayable word. Natalia doesn’t even seem to use it in any recognizably prejudiced or hateful context, just for its shock value as a tossed-off non sequitur. Like many fellow puzzlingly formed “racists”—by the way, this is also a world where a similar but far more radical strain of casual or pseudo-ironic racists have emerged, primarily cultivated online, into a small but concerningly influential group of neo-Nazis—Natalia probably doesn’t believe herself to be racist, even while admitting to her brazen use of the word.

As prevalent as this kind of behavior is, there are still grave consequences when it is exposed, as Natalia learns all too clearly. Once someone in her approved group of Finsta followers screencaps and shares her caption—which she really should’ve expected, since even “private” online social media posts are never really private—the outrage is swift and merciless. Only days after her photo goes up on her Finsta and subsequently goes public, she is suspended from the soccer team. Soon after, her fellow students start up a petition for her expulsion from school. (In the case of Harley, the school itself expels her.) In response to the whirlwind of controversy, Natalia withdraws herself from school, the once promising start to her young life already marred by scandal and ostracization.

The lesson people like Natalia take from this is that it is imperative to be better about anonymizing your Instas and Finstas and various other social media accounts, lest you get caught up in something similar. Yes, the underlying behavior is reprehensible and itself should be addressed first and foremost, but few if any are all that interested in seriously understanding or engaging with the behavior, and prefer to condemn the person who said the bad thing and leave it at that. The lesson for the students and internet users whose torrents of outrage sank Natalia’s educational career is that strident belligerence is the best tool for effectively eradicating the scourge of oddly incomprehensible teen girl racism. The lesson for the institutions ostensibly in charge of these young people’s lives and wellbeing is to divorce itself from the racist student as quickly and in as unambiguous terms as possible so that the backlash will fall squarely on the shoulders of the teen girl and not onto the institution itself.

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The harder lessons that run the risk of being overlooked are larger and scarier ones. That a cultural environment in which identity is valued more everything else, and in which attention—positive or negative—is the only accepted currency by which to valuate these identities, is bound to create a superficial society where action matters less than presentation. That a technological environment in which social media applications arise as identity’s trading floor—an intensely competitive marketplace where identities are brought, presented, and scrutinized by potentially millions of simultaneous producers and consumers, and ultimately valuated in the form of addicting follows and likes—will naturally exacerbate the problem by further mediating the “consumption” of a person’s lived experiences though an online simulacrum of the person, which is controlled by a soulless corporation’s product that is expressly designed to keep you teetering between satisfaction and disaffection at the perfect level that keeps coming back. That the importance of these surface-level identities to everyday life and the ease and omnipresence of the social media accounts where identities are displayed will logically create many disaffected users who crave connection but become conditioned to accept attention as its substitute, and will grow almost addicted to the ephemeral thrill that attention promises. That this environment will also create an urge amongst some to flout these social norms, to rebel against the strictures of a phony but impossibly important social media life in the most extreme ways imaginable through anonymous online accounts, in effect attempting to challenge the restricted societal worldview through the very tools that helped birth it. That the resulting splintering of the self into individually distinct and separately mediated shards that are only given voice on the one correct version of a person’s sizable number of social media accounts, is as much the culprit for the underlying behavior as any latent societal racism.

Netflix, please give me a million dollars.