Zeeshan Saroya is a Filipino-Pakistani New Yorker who is best known on the internet for wearing a golden thong in public. Named @princezee on Instagram, the content creator and influencer can be seen strutting the streets of Manhattan, only wearing a golden thong, shooting reaction videos and skits. Formally a Wall Street tech consultant, Zeeshan now commits the majority of his time growing his following on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. With his recent press appearances in radio shows; his collaborative projects with other Instagram influencers such as Daniel Jean (@danieljean56), Pio (@Pioladitingancia), and DJ Whoo Kid (@djwhookid), and through his consistent work on growing his Instagram following, he recently acquired the coveted badge of honor: the verified blue checkmark.
I spoke with Zeeshan to get his insights into the life of a verified user, how he actually acquired the badge, what’s it like having such a large following online, and what he plans to do with his growing community online.
The importance of the checkmark
Of all the social media platforms, Google+ was the first to use the feature back in 2011. Since then, all platforms leverage the feature to provide legitimacy to both themselves and the notable users on their platform. Instagram and Facebook have open submissions for applying to be verified, but Twitter has closed their application process as of 2018 due to issues concerning political discourse. The main reason so many people covet and vie for the blue checkmark is because of its scarcity.
On Twitter, for example, @Verified, the Twitter support account that follows all of the platform’s verified users, currently follows an estimated 319,200 accounts as of March 2018. That number of verified accounts is less than 0.1% of Twitter’s reported 321 million monthly active users (according to Statista). Similarly, Instagram’s verified population is also minuscule. The small population of verified users on these platforms adds to the elite-aura around them.
When one searches for how to gain the checkmark, you will mainly be bombarded with ambiguous advice such as, gain a good amount of followers and don’t buy them, focus on real engagements, get press online, or be at risk of being impersonated. Although some of these tidbits may hold some validity, social media platforms don’t actually disclose their decision-making processes. When applying on Instagram, if you are rejected you are met with this message: “Your account wasn’t verified because it doesn’t meet the criteria for verification. You can submit another request for 30 days.” I tried my hand at getting the checkmark myself, however, considering how small of a following I have I doubt if I’ll ever get it.
Reporters of various online magazines have contacted verified users in the past and got a mix of responses regarding gaining press, using the verified black market or having a digital agency or publicist apply on your behalf. Zeeshan confirms this information as well. He commented on the fact that he didn’t even consider applying until close associates told him to, which was around when he started appearing in the press in July of 2018. He noted that he started to apply regularly, month after month, on Instagram in October of last year. I also asked him about users buying badges or having media/news companies apply for you and he confirms these tactics are also prevalent. Although he did not provide exact figures, back in 2017 reporters discovered the price range of a single blue checkmark to range from $1,500 to $15,000 depending on the third party who works within the platform. Zeeshan noted that gaining the checkmark is far from easy if one chooses to go through normal channels.
Gaining clout using a golden thong
When growing a following on social media, whether as a brand or a business, you need to have a way to stand out from the noise. This goes without saying, but a content creator has the particular challenge of consistently engaging with his community while generating new content at the same time. Zeeshan had the distinction of being known for his golden thong videos. Alongside his symbol of attention-grabbing marketing, he started collaborating with other influencers when he had around 3K followers.
When he had gained his first 29,000 followers his account got taken down because people started mass-reporting his content (which is a common form of harassment on social media platforms). Despite starting again from square one, Zeeshan’s network and his own ingenuity allowed him to push forward. He was repeatedly denied the verified badge but, notes that consistency is necessary when the goal is something so elusive as verified status. It takes more than having a large following and high engagement on a profile to gain it, as. Once acquiring the badge of honor, he created content that parodies the social media influencer lifestyle informing his audience that the verified checkmark doesn’t necessarily change his life.
It’s important to note that his ability to pivot and change the themes of his content is why he is able to consistently grow his audience in the first place.
One hopes life changes once you get the badge
Zeeshan spoke extensively about the unglamorous aspects of having the verified profile and generating a big following. Recounting incidents where his content was stolen by other influencers (particularly in Russia) to even receiving various death threats while growing his community, Zeeshan assured me that although it is certainly desired — large social media followings come at a price.
Some of the death threats he receives attack his heritage and family background, labeling him a “suicide bomber”, while others call for outright violence (images shown below). Granted that the purpose of his content is to generate buzz and a jarring reaction, there is a line that should not be crossed. Influencers on all platforms can be attacked for any reason, bringing to light the concern for better policies that protect them from harassment.
Hate mail submitted by Zeeshan | @Princezee on Instagram
The checkmark is more of a benefit for the platform, not the verified users
For a verified user, the badge allows them to have more credibility online. Businesses respond faster, with a higher sense of urgency. If you have the checkmark, you also have the ability to charge more in speaking fees and brand partnership deals. In Zeeshan’s case, he’s even able to get discounts of up to fifty percent off in sneaker purchases. In addition to a higher sense of legitimacy in business dealings, a verified badge can protect notable public figures from fake accounts attempting to impersonate their voice and image. With the increase of fake news and misinformation online, the verified badge is extremely important for those accounts specifically in the press and news industry.
One could argue that social platforms have created a “clout economy” so that they can profit off of verified users using their platforms. Whether an account first builds a following to gain verified status on the platform or an already notable figure signs up for an account, platforms gamify the checkmark to ensure that in the fight for attention — those users who can capture it use their specific platforms the most. Influencers have an innate ability to grab attention and create conversation, conversations that generate revenue for the platform hosting it. Verified users in and of themselves could be seen as collector’s items for social platforms.
When I asked Zeeshan what was his next move now that he’s acquired the checkmark, he told me something both unexpected and illuminating. “I’m nowhere near where I want to be at,” he stated. He told me that he wants to transfer his community and his content onto television next. According to him, social media isn’t here to stay. Just as with his previous career on Wall Street, his elite verified status isn’t concrete enough for him to feel comfortable. His verified status could be revoked at any time, so he needs to always be prepared for the next business opportunity — that opportunity being television.
In the ideal situation, there would be a reciprocal relationship between the verified user and the platform. The user would grow and engage with their community in order to stay relevant and sell products, services, or their content, while the platform gains ad revenue from the attention gained. The prominent issue is that platform policies are constantly changing, which leaves the verified user in a precarious position (whether they are aware of it or not is another matter). Zeeshan’s comments highlight a strategy other influencers have taken to consider. Because of political pressure on social platforms, policy changes can affect verified accounts at any time.
The diversification of content on multiple platforms is the only way to ensure that verified user’s communities can remain an asset to them. Twitter, in particular, has been seen removing several badges from far-right accounts in the past by simply changing its rules (as reported by CNBC). One could speculate how much importance the verified checkmark has if it can be taken away at any moment. Perhaps the best strategy one should take if they want to utilize social media to benefit them offline is to ensure their communities engage with them on their own terms. As with Zeeshan in particular, moving to television will allow him to become verified on other platforms too, allowing him to grow his audience even further, and protect himself if Instagram ever deems his account and content unsavory due to another wave of mass-reporting (like what happened with his first account).
It is safe to say that the verified checkmark is always going to be desired by those who wish to have more attention. There is an obvious financial benefit to having the badge as well, which is why a black market for them exists. However, it is important to question why these badges exist and to what degree are they actually important? Lastly, who places the value in them? Did we decide how important these badges are or did the platforms collectively sell the importance of these badges to the general public, as just another feature to keep our attention focused on them?