Instagram Is Changing How We Define A Public Figure, Not Necessarily For The Better

Photographed by Lauren Maccabbee.
In Thomas Rhett’s single “Life Changes”, released this past April, the singer croons about the life stages people experience as they grow older. For the most part, Rhett references generic moments that could belong to any generation: Arriving at uni and not knowing anybody; falling in love and getting engaged; and having kids. These are so unspecific they verge on being boring.
But there is one standout pop culture mention that could only belong to the current generation of social media natives. After getting to the engagement part of the song, Rhett sings about his fiancé’s growing follower base: “And now she got her own set of fans / She got a blue check mark by her Instagram.”
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Rhett could have just said his fiancé is popular. Instead, he gives her status a specific qualification that listeners can understand and relate to. Although Instagram initially introduced its blue tick, or verification symbol, in 2014, as a way to fight the imposter problem and let users know which A-lister accounts were real, the symbol has evolved to represent much more: Status that can’t be bought. Unlike Twitter, which, for a time, seemed to hand out blue ticks to anyone and everyone, Instagram has been more judicious in doling out verification from the start.

"It takes less than five minutes to become a 'public figure' on Instagram."

The blue check mark is hard to come by — you can’t request or pay for it — but there is an increasingly popular status designation that users are adopting because it is far easier to get on your Instagram profile: The “public figure” label.
It takes less than five minutes to become a “public figure” on Instagram, a status that carries over from the app's parent company, Facebook. All you need to do is go to your Profile > Settings > Switch to Business Profile. After swiping through the setup, you’ll be ask to link a Facebook page to your account. You don’t even need to leave the app to do this: Simply tap Create A Page > Choose A Category > People > Choose A Subcategory > Public Figure. And voilà! You have Insta-status in the form of a small title below your name on your profile.
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But the very factors that make this status appealing — it’s free, easy to get, and says something about you — are the same ones that have led to the swift backlash against it. As an increasing number of users have opted in to the label, some with less than 1,000 followers and others with more than 5,000, their followers have taken to Twitter to condemn the act, calling those who use it pretentious, stupid, and tool-ish. It's been deemed a stereotypical marker of a “wannabe influencer” rather than a legitimate sign that someone has made it in the truest social media sense of the word. It isn’t even clear why someone who isn’t verified should be able to call themselves a “public figure” since real public figures are at risk of impersonation.
“What annoys me about this label is that people can display themselves as a public figure when they’re not,” Marisela B., a daycare teacher and student in San Antonio, Texas, told Refinery29. “It can be deceptive to new Instagram users.”
The larger problem is that the social media version of a “public figure” (i.e. anyone), is much different than the traditional, colloquial use of the term, Kate Wolff, the SVP of Client Services at relationship marketing agency RQ, says. Historically, a public figure in society is someone who is famous outside of their immediate sphere of influence (i.e. an actor who is well-known to the public outside of Hollywood), or someone who holds public office. As Instagram becomes a more prevalent part of our everyday lives — and all signs point to the fact that it is — the availability of the “public figure” designation has started to seep into public consciousness, lessening the term’s value.
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“It’s diluting the status symbol that people are working hard for,” Wolff, the SVP of Client Services at relationship marketing agency RQ, told Refinery29. “If everybody becomes a public figure, what does that terminology mean now?”

"The very factors that make the 'public figure' status appealing — it’s free, easy to get, and says something about you — are the same ones that have led to the backlash against it."

There are a few benefits to becoming a public figure on Instagram that go beyond the lure of the profile label, though. If you have 10,000 or more followers, you can add a link to your Story — something that verified users get, too — allowing viewers to easily swipe up and drive traffic to a separate site. You can also access important engagement analytics to find out your followers’ demographics and learn about the reach of your posts. For a younger generation that places value in their number of likes, these metrics are desirable, and reason enough to designate yourself as a public figure, regardless of your following or occupation, Wolff says.
Although Stephanie Cartin, the co-CEO of social media agency Socialfly says she has not experienced negative feedback from users with the influencers she works with, she does think Instagram “should expand the designations offered on the platform to include Influencer or Content Creator to be more transparent with users.” While Instagram includes title options that beyond “public figure” — you can call yourself an actor, athlete, blogger, fashion model, and video creator, among others — there is no broader “content creator” or “influencer” label. There is also no approval process required to get these labels.
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Wolff agrees the onus is on Instagram and Facebook to change how they dole out the “public figure” status: “Ultimately, I think the solve is going to be for them to come up with a way to adjust how you label yourself, but still enable a way for you to get those analytics. Then, hopefully, people will not opt in for things they don’t qualify for.”
After all, while social media might open up the potential for anyone to become a public figure (the consequences of this became apparent with #PlaneBae), it's questionable whether everyone should be able to call themselves one.
Refinery29 has reached out to Facebook and Instagram for comment.
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