Here Today, Viral Tomorrow
Fame is no longer a question of who but of when
Google has started selling me to me. Let me explain. While I would never consider myself a public figure, Google thinks otherwise. The company has started running ads that read: “As a public figure, it’s important that the information surfaced about you is authoritative and accurate. One of the best ways to ensure this is by claiming your knowledge panel.”
This ad links to Google’s Civics Resources page, which provides information on how to claim your knowledge panel on Google search, how to set up your YouTube Channel, and how to keep your accounts extra secure. This space is for people who might need more tools than just private citizens if they are to curate a digital presence that is for more than just their friends and family — but isn’t that most of us with any website, public profile, or other page that publicly identifies us to a wider audience?
In many ways the distinction between who is a public figure and who is a private citizen is collapsing, and tech companies are defining what this means for us. Twitter had verified profiles, Facebook allows users to request a verified badge, and Instagram allows users to designate your profile as a “public figure” if you switch your personal account to a business account. These are all meant to differentiate us public personalities from lowly private citizens. But while the distinction between our private lives and a public persona might seem obvious, in digital space it’s not always so cut and dry. Gone are the days of Brad Pitt and “everyone else.” Here are the days of influencers, micro-influencers, celebrities, micro celebrities, and so on and so forth. At any moment, any user might be a “celebrity,” or might become renowned to the internet-at-large.
Nathan Apodaka (aka @420doggface208) recently went viral for filming himself drinking cranberry juice while skateboarding to work, and Brittany Tomlinson went viral for tasting kombucha (notably, both videos originated on TikTok). While neither of these people are necessarily household names, Apodaka was given a new truck by Ocean Spray, and Tomlinson has been in the New York Times. The reasons we move into the digital public sphere are sometimes more delightful or innocuous than others.
In an op-ed a couple years ago, actress Amber Heard posed the idea that we are all celebrities. Heard was one of more than 100 victims of a 2014 celebrity photo leak, which targeted hundreds of celebrities — mostly women — and has become a victims rights advocate for nonconsensual pornography (aka revenge porn). In this article, she argued that we should care about celebrity privacy because social media makes it possible for anyone to be humiliated, shamed, or violated before a very public audience. “Today everyone is one step away from becoming famous,” she argued.
The easier it has become to write about and speak about people and events — in essence, to publicize someone or something — the more the “celebrity” designation has evolved. As media allow for faster publication processes, celebrity emerges quicker but also is more fleeting. This has not always been the case, however. Before the internet or even print there was infamy that one might achieve in oral ballads through renown, which comes partly from the latin phrase for “to name.” Print, in newspapers and books, allows for fame to develop which increases the number of those who might be considered noteworthy. Somewhere along the way, this idea of a public figure also developed, which may not necessarily be a celebrity, just someone in the “public eye.” And since digital media allows many more eyes than any previous media available, we see celebrity move faster and fiercer than ever.
At any moment, as Amber Heard argued, we all have the potential to have our private lives exposed and for that exposure to cause us harm. Our personal (now public) reputations can be damaged, and there can be information floating around on the internet that we can’t get rid of. If Warhol once said (maybe) that in the future we will all be famous for 15 minutes, that future now shows we may be spending that time being shamed. We need adequate protections and real action for this. The expectation of privacy is always tied to specific circumstances, and our profiles are increasingly pushed to the expectation of publicity, slowly chipping away at the expectation of privacy on any social platform, or at least making it clearer that we shouldn’t expect it. This may be in part, what companies like Google are doing by telling us we are public figures.
In 2019, Google won a case that does not require them to enforce the right to be forgotten beyond the European Union. The right to be forgotten is of course a provision in the GDPR that allows “data subjects” to request that information — a written account, an image, or a video — be removed from appearing in search results. This was a win for free speech advocates, because to pose a situation in which information can be wiped from the internet can theoretically lead to things like authoritarian governments wiping information or opinions they don’t like. However, most requests to be forgotten do not come from public figures or from governments but from private citizens, up to 95% of requests, in fact, (which google has disputed) when the argument against this law in the U.S. was often something about protecting information that is in the “public interest.”
In the legal realm, defining what constitutes a public figure is critical in defamation cases, because public figures can claim injury to their reputation. That being said, public figures often have a harder time winning defamation cases because information published about them is in the public interest. As such, they have to prove actual malicious intent. Private figures are often given better protections in this realm, because they only have to prove negligence. While tech companies are likely not concerned about defamation, the general idea is that generally, legally, public figures have public reputations and can be open to public scrutiny.
So, now Google is now running these ads for people like me who are not celebrities, because it seems that we are all public figures now, and as public figures we should gain greater control of our public personas. To help us take responsibility for our data, Google is creating the tools for us personally to do so via these civics resources. But this does not solve the problem of things like nonconsenual pornography for instance, or of other information that we want taken down that does not fall into the category of defamation but is simply information about us that is free floating. Further, it fails to even scratch the surface for what infamy is to come as Deep Fake technology becomes more widely available, which is already becoming a problem for ostensibly private citizens.
The particularly strategic and pointed yet free ability to crown yourself a public figure is eerily reminiscent of the way rideshare companies have redefined labor so that they have workers but not employees. This redefinition of labor allows for the company to extract the privileges of labor without attending to its responsibilities to it. In this Google instance, Google allows itself to avoid liability by passing off the responsibility to the individual. The comparison starts to break down, however, because we do not fill out applications to become public figures the same ways that a driver may consent to “work” with Uber. These developments lead us to often ask “who is a public figure, but perhaps we might instead pose: “when do they become a public figure?” And what do we stand to gain but also to lose from this separation? There is some evidence that suggests tech companies might have more to gain from more of their users becoming public figures than more remaining private citizens .
In The Identity Trade, Nora Draper explores the consumer privacy industry and argues for recognizing a very real need for the reputation management of private citizens. This shift from private lives to public profiles raises questions about who should be in charge of what happens to our information when something becomes public when we don’t want it to be. As Draper argues in part, paradoxically, one of the best ways to have digital privacy is to cultivate a public image even as a private citizen, because this allows you to claim your identity and to take charge of it or at least attempt to. Once you have any kind of online presence, privacy is an ongoing negotiation rather than a one time deal.
In a lot of ways, the concept of “going viral” opens private figures up to public lives. The cranberry juice guy (Nathan Apodaka) and any other host of public characters find themselves quickly but inadvertently falling into public figure status and relishing it. But without going viral, being a public figure is also something that a lot of us private figures are already learning to manage and cultivate through personal websites and social media profiles. Is Amber Heard right that we are all celebrities? Do we want to be? Or do tech companies want us to be so they have less responsibility to us and for us.