This piece is part of an ongoing series exploring what it means to be a woman on the internet.
In a folder on my phone called “PUBLIC FIGURE,” I save screenshots of some of the most outrageous messages strangers have sent me since I got verified on Instagram, primarily because I still can’t believe I get so many. There are dozens of DMs that demand to know “why tf” and “how tf” I got a little blue badge.
People will scrawl “who are you lmao” under a bunch of my photos all at once, which is a singularly mortifying experience that has no equivalent on Twitter or Facebook, where my profiles also have blue ticks. On a few occasions, I’ve commented on a celebrity or brand’s post, then watched as the replies to my original comment devolve into a fight over whether a person can buy verification and, if so, whether that’s what I did. To be clear, I didn’t. I’m a journalist and was verified for my job. My profile is categorized under “Journalist” and a Story highlight full of screenshots of my work appears right at the top of my profile.
The messages are sorted into my “requests” folder but are often accompanied by a push notification telling me a user “wants to send [me] a message.” I always know what it will say before I even unlock my phone to check. By far the worst one came from a user who asked how to get a tick a few times and when I didn’t answer, viewed my Story, noticed I was watching Gossip Girl for the first time, and sent me a spiteful DM telling me who Gossip Girl was, spoiling the show.
In receiving this unexpected aggression, anger, and attention, I’m not alone. Several women verified on Instagram told me similar stories — with their experiences ranging from annoying to creepy to scary. And yet, men in media who I spoke to about this phenomenon generally have positive feelings about Instagram since being verified. No, this isn’t representative of all men, but it’s been shown that women are twice as likely to face online harassment and the men I spoke to didn’t report, say, getting unsolicited dick pics at a higher rate.
The DMs I get may seem trivial compared to revenge porn or other online harassment people face daily, but my “PUBLIC FIGURE” folder has evolved from an uncomfortable joke to a museum dedicated to the hostility that manifests itself in various ways for women across the internet and in real life. The messages may not necessarily be dangerous, but other manifestations , which is why they’re all worth investigating.
According to Instagram, the checkmarks are designed simply to “help people more easily find the public figures, celebrities, and brands they want to follow,” but among users, they function more or less as a . The general assumption is that Instagram either confers a marking arbitrarily on accounts with thousands of followers or the people behind smaller accounts buy them.
How I got the tick
When my former boss asked me if I wanted my Instagram account submitted for verification, it never occurred to me the small marking would be controversial. All I felt was a little excitement, but I tried to be cool with my response.
I probably said something like, “Yeah, that would be super funny,” which, two years later, it still totally is, even though the tiny tick has brought me an outsized amount of harassment.
I don’t really self-identify as a public figure, celebrity, or brand; I’m a young woman who works in media, which bizarrely qualifies me for the badge as much as it qualifies Oprah. If and when I use my account to reach out to sources or act on behalf of a media company, it needs to be clear I’m not bluffing.
I was expecting the attention and ribbing from my friends, but I wasn’t expecting the explosion of outrage from total strangers.
At present, I have about 2,600 followers. Similarly, 2,900 accounts follow my Twitter, which is also verified and is where I actually post my work, but I’ve never gotten any harassing messages about my verification on that platform. Twitter’s on verifying users may contribute to that — or perhaps, a Twitter verification doesn’t have the same weight as one from Instagram on the social media totem pole. At any rate, I’m expected to have a badge on the app where I share links to my articles, not on the one where I share pictures of my face. Getting Instagram verification almost felt subversive, if self-serving.
It also felt surprisingly validating to meet the standards for obtaining something so ostensibly prestigious. The feelings of success and belonging would prove short-lived, but there was a part of me, at first, that saw the badge as a sign I’d somehow made it, at least in terms of an admittedly subjective importance.
Like I said, though, I wanted to seem aloof with my boss, not like I actually cared. Online, it often seems like sincerity is the enemy of prosperity, but the dirty little secret is that we all do care. That’s why I ended up saying I wanted to be on the verification list with the rest of my coworkers even though I knew my friends were going to make fun of me for taking myself so seriously. (And they do!)
I was expecting the attention and ribbing from my friends, but I wasn’t expecting the explosion of outrage from total strangers. As it turns out, there are people who care a lot about their online image and have no problem making it known they, too, want a checkmark, even if it’s obvious they don’t know what its purpose is.
The “public figure” folder
The proof is in the “PUBLIC FIGURE” folder.
I’ve fielded emails and text messages about the checkmark, which always feel invasive, because I have contact information available on the page since, well, the whole point of the verified profile is to enhance my ability to do my job. I don’t usually respond to the messages or comments, but when I do, I just write that I work in media and didn’t buy anything.
“I’m sure you didn’t get yours the right way because you don’t have much fans,” someone wrote back once, which is a pretty common theme among the messages, although the moralistic resentment over “the right way” added a unique touch.
Notably, four guys I’ve gone out with have brought it up in person, each with a different combination of annoyance and awe. One of them was an aspiring entertainer with no concrete acting credits. He admitted to googling me before our date (which was both our first and last one), then indignantly told me that if either of us should be verified, it was him, the actor. Another also worked in media and was frustrated no one at his organization knew anyone at Facebook, Instagram’s parent company, who could make it happen for him. I sipped my drink. What am I supposed to say to that?
I reached out to the Gossip Girl spoiler, who is purportedly a British teen, for this piece and they agreed to chat, but quickly retracted the agreement when I asked about the whole show-spoiling thing. The user did tell me I could quote this: “When I sent them things it was a joke and I never thought you’d open them because of your tick.”
It’s not a joke, though, and if it were, it would be much less funny to the verified women I spoke to than the verified men. (Instagram declined to comment for this article, as did a few verified users claiming to be selling badges in the comments of celebrity posts.)
What about the others?
Andrew Kirell, the senior editor at The Daily Beast who has 755 Instagram followers, says he gets more spam messages, but not necessarily harassment. Jon Levine, The Wrap’s media editor who has 2,105, says his harassment has neither gone up nor down post-checkmarking. KHarlles, a recording artist with 3,178 followers, noted that there has been an increase in DMs inquiring how he got his badge, but largely, getting verified on Instagram “was very positive” and has been useful to his career.
Polly A., a verified musician with over 12,500 followers on the platform, however, doesn’t agree that the tick is useful in any way. She’s noticed “no effect” beyond “annoyed” messages from unverified users: “I guess the only thing I notice is that some people almost make you feel unworthy for having one if you’re not ‘famous.’”
When asked about any effect she’s seen since getting her checkmark, a female journalist with a little over 1,000 followers asked to remain anonymous (as did every woman in media contacted for this story, for fear of further harassment). Granted anonymity, she confided she’s seen a definite increase in not only the sort of spam reported by Kirell and KHarlles, but “weird guys” and “creepy messages” from men. The dick pics and “inappropriate comments” she described aren’t uncommon for any woman online, but the amount she receives tripled after she was verified on Instagram from one or two a month to five or six.
All of this raises a question, of course: Is it worth it?
A second woman in media whose follower count sits around 3,000 said she, too, got an “insane amount” of spam DMs from people who wanted to purchase her account, but those halted and gave way to a wave of men offering out-of-line opinions on her appearance.
Another woman in media I spoke to declined verification altogether simply because getting it would have meant she would need to make her account public, which she was unwilling to do.
All of this raises a question, of course: Is it worth it? For women, especially, is solidifying a brand or public position through the use of the app’s verification badges really worth it?
For the most part, in spite of creepy messages and straight-up aggression, no one I spoke to, whether in entertainment or media, said they fully regretted getting the tick. Almost everyone mentioned a bump in engagement and, honestly, a little self-aware gloating among friends (along with the same roasting by those friends that I correctly anticipated, too).
Moreover, media women who have seen an increase in the receipt of creepy messages or unwelcome nudes noted that yes, their messages to potential sources get answered faster and more reliably than messages sent by unverified colleagues. Even with my relatively low following, I, too, noticed that when seeking out sources for this story and others, I got a solid response rate I just didn’t see before I got that badge. When it needs to, the checkmark does its job. It also happens to bring a lot of anger and dick pics with it.
Whether being verified is “worth it,” then, depends entirely on what “worth it” means to each individual. We already know women experience more harassment just for being Online While Female. The extra visibility of appearing at the top of comment sections or searches can only add to that.
One artist, Thea & The WIld, who has 2,545 followers, shared a particularly rosy outlook about her checkmark and whether getting it was worth it.
“[W]hen I search for known people I want to follow, I obviously look for the verification sign to avoid ‘fake’ profiles and weird content,” she said.
She’s received a few nice messages from fans, she added, and while she’s concerned overall about the general addictiveness and vapidness of social media, she still gleans a little joy from her badge, which is probably the attitude we should all try to have: “For me, I think it just felt positive and probably affected some dopamine in my brain when that tiny mark appeared.”
If I could go back in time to the moment my former boss asked if I wanted to get verified, I’d probably still do it, too, even though I audibly groan whenever I get a push notification alerting me that someone I don’t know “wants to send me a message” on the app. After all, it does its job of identifying me as a legitimate, trustworthy professional, even though one user did rather unkindly (but fairly!) surmise I must not be “one of the better known” journalists after I commented on an influencer’s post. Like other women harassed online, I’ve embraced and I can’t recommend it enough.
Maybe one day I’ll grow into my badge and have the kind of account that seems like it ought to have one to the average user, but I know if and when that happens, I’ll face harassment for something new, simply for being a woman on the internet. In the meantime, at the risk of committing the most grievous online sin and seeming like I care, I invite you to . I’m verified, you know!
Lindsey Ellefson is a journalist who lives in New York. Find her on Twitter, @ellefs0n.