Alt, or alternative, accounts are secondary profiles people use in addition to a main account on a social media platform. They are a kind of automediation, a way of representing the self, that deliberately displays a different identity facet, and addresses a different audience, to what someone considers to be their main account. The term “alt” seems to have originated from videogame culture and been incorporated into understandings of social media accounts. A wiki page about alternate accounts on virtual world Second Life calls an alt “an account used by a resident for something other than their usual activity or to do things in privacy” (n.p.).
Studying alts gives an insight into practices of managing and contextualising identities on networked platforms that are visible, persistent, editable, associable (Treem and Leonardi), spreadable, searchable (boyd), shareable (Papacharissi "Without"), and personalised (Schmidt). When these features of social media are understood as limitations that lead to context collapse (Marwick and boyd 122; Wesch 23), performative incoherence (Papacharissi Affective 99), and the risk of overexposure, people respond by developing alternative ways to use platforms.
Plenty of scholarship on social media identities claims the self is fragmented, multifaceted, and contextual (Marwick 355; Schmidt 369). But the scholarship on multiple account use on single platforms is still emerging. Joanne Orlando writes for The Conversation that teens increasingly have more than one account on Instagram: “finstas” are “fake” or secondary accounts used to post especially candid photos to a smaller audience, thus they are deployed strategically to avoid the social pressure of looking polished and attractive. These accounts are referred to as “fake” because they are often pseudonymous, but the practice of compartmentalising audiences makes the promise that the photos posted are more authentic, spontaneous, and intimate. Kylie Cardell, Kate Douglas, and Emma Maguire (162) argue that while secondary accounts promise a less constructed version of life, speaking back to the dominant genre of aesthetically pleasing Instagram photos, all social media posts are constructed within the context of platform norms and imagined audiences (Litt & Hargittai 1). Still, secondary accounts are important for revealing these norms (Cardell, Douglas & Maguire 163). The secondary account is particularly prevalent on Twitter, a platform that often brings together multiple audiences into a public profile. In 2015, author Emily Reynolds claimed that Twitter alts were “an appealingly safe space compared to main Twitter where abuse, arguments and insincerity are rife” (n.p.).
This paper draws on a survey of Twitter users with alts to argue that the strategic use of pseudonyms, profile photos without faces, locked accounts, and smaller audiences are ways to overcome some of the built-in limitations of social media automediality.
Identity Is Multiple
Chris Poole, founder of anonymous bulletin board 4chan, believes identity is a fluid concept, and designed his platform as a space in which people could connect over interests, not profiles. Positioning 4chan against real-name platforms, he argues:
Your identity is prismatic […] we’re all multifaceted people. Google and Facebook would have you believe that you’re a mirror, that there is one reflection that you have, there is one idea of self. But in fact we’re more like diamonds. You can look at people from any angle and see something totally different, but they’re still the same. (n.p.)
Claiming that identities are contextual performances stems from longstanding sociological and philosophical work on identity from theorists like Erving Goffman, who in the 1950s proposed a dramaturgical framework of the self to consider interactions as fundamentally social and performative rather than reflecting one core, essential inner self.
Social media profiles allow people to use the language of the platform to represent themselves (Marwick 362), meaning identity performances are framed by platform architecture and features, formal and informal rules, and social ties (Schmidt 369). Social media profiles shape how people can engage in how they represent themselves, argue Shelly Farnham and Elizabeth Churchill, who claim that the assumption that a single, unified online identity is sufficient is a problematic trend in platform design. They argue that when facets of their lives are incompatible, people segment those lives into separate areas in order to maintain social norms and boundaries.
Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson consider identity multiplicities to be crucial to automediality, which is built on an aesthetic of bricolage and pastiche rather than understanding subjectivity to be the essence of the self. In her work on automediality and online girlhood, Maguire ("Home"; "Self-Branding" 74) argues that an automedial approach attends to how mediation shapes the way selves can be represented online, claiming that the self is brought into being through these mediation practices.
This article understands alt accounts as a type of social media practice that Nick Couldry (52) identifies as presencing: sustaining a public presence with media. I investigate presencing through studying alts as a way to manage separate publics, and the tension between public and private, on Twitter by surveying users who have a main and an alt account. Although research into multiple account use is nascent, Alice Marwick lists maintaining multiple accounts as a tactic to mitigate context collapse, alongside other strategies such as using nicknames, only sharing posts when they are appropriate for multiple audiences, and keeping more personal interactions to private messenger and text message.
Ben Light argues that while connection is privileged on social media, disconnective practices like editing out, deleting, unfriending, untagging, rejecting follower requests, and in this case, creating alt accounts, are crucial. Disconnecting from some aspects of the social media experience allows people to stay connected on a particular platform, by negotiating the dynamics that do not appeal to them. While the disconnective practice of presencing through an alt has not been studied in detail, research I discuss in the next section focuses on multi-account use to argue that people who have more than one account on a single platform are aware of their audiences, and want control over which people see which posts.
Multi-Platform and Multi-Account Use
A conference presentation by Frederic Stutzman and Woodrow Hartzog calls maintaining multiple profiles on a single platform a strategy for boundary regulation, through which access is selectively granted to specific people. Stutzman and Hartzog interviewed 20 people with multiple profiles to determine four main motives for this kind of boundary regulation: privacy, identity management, utility (using one profile for a distinct purpose, like managing a restaurant page), and propriety (conforming to social norms around appropriate disclosure).
Writing about multiple profiles on Reddit, Alex Leavitt argues that temporary or “throwaway” accounts give people the chance to disclose sensitive or off-topic information. For example, some women use throwaways when posting to a bra sizing subreddit, so men don’t exploit their main account for sexual purposes. Throwaways are a boundary management technique Leavitt considers beneficial for Redditors, and urges platform designers to consider implementing alternatives to single accounts.
Jessa Lingel and Adam Golub also call for platforms to allow for multiple accounts, suggesting Facebook should let users link their profiles at a metadata level and be able to switch between them. They argue that this would be especially beneficial for those who take on specific personas, such as drag queens. In their study of drag queens with more than one Facebook profile, Lingel and Golub suggest that drag queens need to maintain boundaries between fans and friends, but creating a separate business page for their identity as a performer was inadequate for the kind of nuanced personal communication they engaged in with their fans. Drag queens considered this kind of communication relationship maintenance, not self-branding. This demonstrates that drag queens on Facebook are attentive to their audience, which is a common feature of users posting to social media: they have an idea, no matter how accurate, of who they are posting to.
Eden Litt and Eszter Hargittai (1) call this perception the imagined audience, which serves as a guide for how to present the self and what to post about when an audience is unknown or not physically present. People in their study would either claim they were posting to no-one in particular, or that they had an audience in mind, whether this was personal ties (close friends, family, specific individuals like a best friend), communal ties (people interested in cleaning tips, local art community, people in Portland), professional ties (colleagues, clients, my radio show audience), and phantasmal ties (people with whom someone has an imaginary relationship, like famous people, brands, animals, and the dead).
Based on these studies of boundary regulation, throwaway accounts, separate Facebook pages for fans and friends, and imagined audiences on social media, I designed a short survey that would prompt respondents to reflect on their own practices of negotiating platform limitations through their alt account.
Asking Twitter about Alts
To research alts, I asked my own Twitter followers to tell me about theirs. I’ve been tweeting from @emvdn since 2010, and I have roughly 5,500 followers, mostly Melbourne academics, writers, and professionals. This method of asking my own Twitter followers questions builds on a study by Alice Marwick and danah boyd, in which they investigated context collapse on social media by tweeting questions like “who do you tweet to?” and monitoring the replies.
I sent out a tweet with a link to the survey on 31 January 2018, and left it open for responses until I submitted this draft article on 18 February 2018:
I’m writing about alt (alternative/secondary) accounts on social media. If you have an alt account, on Twitter or elsewhere, could you tell me about it, in survey form? (van der Nagel)
The tweet was retweeted 161 times, spreading the survey to other accounts and contexts, and I received a total of 326 responses to the survey. For a full list of survey questions, see Appendix. I asked people to choose one alt (if they had more than one), and answer questions about it, including what prompted them to start the account, how they named it, who the audience is for their main and their alt, and how similar they perceived their main and alt to be. I also asked whether they would like to remain anonymous or be quoted under a pseudonym, which I have followed in this article.
Of course, by posting the Twitter survey to my own followers, I am necessarily asking a specific group of people whose alt practices might not be indicative of broader trends. Just like any research done on Twitter, this research attracted a particular group: the results of this survey give a snapshot of the followers of a 29 year old female Melbourne academic, and the wider networks it was retweeted into.
Although I asked anyone with more than one account on the same platform to fill out the survey, I’ll be focusing on pseudonymous alts here. Not everyone is pseudonymous on their alt: 61 per cent of respondents said they use a pseudonym, and half (51 per cent) said theirs was locked, or unavailable to the public. Some people have an alt in order to distinguish themselves from their professional account, some are connecting with those who share a specific interest, and others deliberately created an alt to harass and troll others on Twitter. But I regard pseudonymous alts as especially important to this article, as they evidence particular understandings of social media.
Asking how people named their alt gave me an insight into how they framed it: as another facet of their identity: “I chose something close, but not too close to my main twitter handle,” or directed towards one particular subject they use the alt for: “I wanted a personal account which would be about all sorts, and one just for women’s sport” (Danielle Warby). Some changed the name of their account often, to further hide the account away: “I have renamed it several times, usually referencing in jokes with friends.”
Many alt usernames express that the account is an alternative to a main one: people often said their alt username was their main username with a prefix or suffix like “alt,” “locked,” “NSFW” (Not Safe For Work, adult content), “priv” (short for “private”), or “2”, so if their main account was @emvdn, their alt account might be @emvdn_alt. Some used a username or nickname from another part of their life, used a pop culture reference, or wanted a completely random username, so they used a username generator or simply mashed the keyboard to get a string of random characters. Others used their real name for their alt account: “It’s my name. The point wasn’t to hide, it was to separate/segment conversiations [sic]” (knitmeapony).
When asked who their audience was for their main and their alt, most people spoke of a smaller, more intimate audience of close friends or trusted accounts. On Twitter, people with locked accounts must approve followers before they can see their tweets, so it’s likely they are thinking of a specific group. One person said their alt was “locked behind a trust-wall (like a paywall, but you need to pay with a life-long friendship).” A few people said their audience for their alt was just one person: themselves. While their main account was for friends, or just “anyone who wants to follow me” (Brisbane blogger), their alt would simply be for them alone, to privately post and reflect.
Asking how similar the main and alt account was led people reflecting on how they used multiple accounts to manage their multifaceted identity. “My alt account is just me unfiltered,” said one anonymous respondent, and another called their accounts “two sides of the same coin. Both me, just public and private versions.” One respondent said, “I would communicate differently in the boardroom from the bedroom. And I guess my alt is more like a private bedroom party, so it doesn’t matter if my bra comes off.”
Many people signalled their awareness or experience of harassment when asked about benefits or drawbacks of alt accounts: people started theirs to avoid being harassed, bullied, piled-on, or judged. While an alt account gave people a private, safe channel in which to reach close friends and share intimate parts of their life, they also spoke about difficulties with maintaining more than one account, and potential awkwardness if someone requested to follow them that they did not want to connect with.
It seemed that asking about benefits and drawbacks of alts led to articulations of labour—keeping accounts separate, and deciding on who to allow into this private space—but fears about social media more generally also surfaced. Although creating an alt meant people were consciously taking steps to compartmentalise their identity, this did not make them feel completely impervious to harassment, context collapse, and overexposure. “Some dingus will screencap and create drama,” was one potential drawback of having an alt: just because confessions and intimate or sexual photos were shared privately doesn’t mean they will stay private. People were keen to acknowledge that alts involved ongoing labour and platform negotiations.
Multiple Identity Facets; Multiple Accounts
When I released the survey, I was expecting most people to discuss their alt, locked, private account, which existed in contrast to their main, unlocked, professional one. Some people did just that, like Sarah:
I worked in the media and needed a place to put my thoughts ABOUT my job/the media that I didn’t want my boss reading – not necessarily negative, just private thoughts I wanted to write somewhere.
Wanting to maintain a public presence while still having an intimate space for personal self-disclosure was a common theme, which showed an awareness of imagined audiences, and a desire to disconnect from certain audiences, particularly colleagues and family members. Some didn’t necessarily want an intimate alt, but a targeted one: there were accounts for dog photos, weight loss journeys, fandoms, pregnancies, fetishes, a positive academic advice account using a Barbie doll called @barbie_phd, and one for cataloguing laundromats around London. It also seemed alts were contagious: people regularly admitted they began theirs because a friend had one. “Friends were using alts and it looked like a cool world;” “my friends seemed to be having a good time with it, and I wanted to try something they were interested in;” “wanted to be part of the ‘little twitter’ community.”
Fluidities I wasn’t expecting also emerged. One respondent considered both of their accounts to be primary:
it’s not clear for me which of my accounts is the “alt”. i had my non-professional one first, but i don’t consider either of them secondary, though the professional one is much more active.
Along with those that changed the name of their alt often, L said they “initially kept private to only me to rant, record very private thoughts etc., have since extended it to 3 followers.” Platforms encourage continuous, active, engaged participation with ever-expanding networks of followers and friends. As José van Dijck (12) argues, platforms privilege connections, even as they stress human connectedness and downplay the automated connectivity from which they profit. Twitter’s homepage urges people to “follow your interests. Hear what people are talking about. Join the conversation. See what’s happening in the world right now,” and encourages people to keep adding more connections by featuring a recommendation panel that displays suggestions next to the main feed for “who to follow”, and links to import contacts from Gmail and other address books. In this instance, L’s three followers is an act of resistance, a disconnective practice that only links L with the very specific people they want to be an audience for their private thoughts, not to the extended networks of people L knows.
This article has provided further evidence that on social media platforms, people don’t just have one account with their real name that faithfully expresses their one true identity. Even among those with alts, practices vary immensely, with some people using their alt as a quieter, more private space, and others creating a public identity and stream of posts catering to a niche audience.
When users understand social media’s visibility, persistence, editability, association, spreadability, searchability, shareability, and personalisation as limitations, they seek ways to compartmentalise their identity facets so they can have access to the conversations, contexts, and audiences they want.
There is scope for future research in this area on how alts are created, perceived, and managed, and how they relate to the broader social media landscape and its emphasis on real names, expanding networks, and increasingly sophisticated connections between people, platforms, and data. A larger study encompassing multiple platforms and accounts would reveal wider patterns of use and give more insight into this common, yet understudied, disconnective practice of selective presencing.
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Appendix: List of Survey Questions
All the questions in this survey are optional, so feel free to skip any if you’re not comfortable sharing.
How old are you?
What is your gender identity?
What is your main occupation?
What is your city and country of residence?
Which social media platforms do you use? Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Instagram, Snapchat, LinkedIn, Tumblr, YouTube, Tencent QQ, WeChat, KakaoTalk, Renren, other?
Which social media platforms do you have an alt account on? Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Instagram, Snapchat, Google+, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Tumblr, YouTube, Tencent QQ, WeChat, KakaoTalk, Renren, other?
Your alt account
This section asks you to pick one of your alt accounts - for example, your locked account on Twitter separate from your main account, a throwaway on Reddit, or a close-friends-only Facebook account - and tell me about it.
Which platform is your alt account on?
Is your alt locked (unavailable to the public)? Yes/No
What prompted you to start your alt account?
Do you use a pseudonym on your alt? Yes/No
Do you use a photo of yourself as the profile image? Yes/No
Do you share photos of yourself on your alt? Yes/No
Can you tell me about how you named your alt?
Which account do you use more often? My main/my alt/I use them about the same
Which has a bigger audience? My main/my alt/They’re about the same
Who is the audience for your main account?
Who is the audience for your alt account?
What topics would you post about on your alt that you’d never post about on your main?
How similar do you think your main and alt accounts are?
What are the benefits of having an alt?
What are the drawbacks of having an alt?
If I quote you in my research project, what name/pseudonym would you like me to use?
My name/pseudonym is___________ OR I would like to remain anonymous and be assigned a participant number