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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Unverify Me, Daddy

Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover has been chaotic since its slapdash inception, so it’s only fitting that his first change will scramble the platform’s social hierarchy.

Last weekend, as Musk’s reign began, news broke that he was implementing a plan to scrap the company’s current verification process, where a blue check mark signifies that someone is who they say they are. Under this new scheme, people will have to pay a monthly fee for verification as part of the company’s Twitter Blue service. Once it rolls out, current verified accounts will have 90 days to pony up or lose their status.

This proposed shakeup has not gone over well with Twitter power users. Author Stephen King, for instance, tweeted that he would be “gone like Enron” rather than pay to be verified. Still, Musk appears undeterred. The Blue Check Rapture is coming.

Shifting to a pay-to-play model undermines the original point of verification. In 2009, Twitter launched its blue checks in response to a lawsuit from St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, as a way to demonstrate it was committed to controlling impersonation attempts. (La Russa was peeved that somebody was pretending to be him and cracking jokes at his expense.)

Verification was a way to keep prominent people and organizations, from celebrities to politicians to multinational corporations and government agencies, comfortable on the platform. Early verified accounts include the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kim Kardashian. The media has always loved verification. For journalists trying to get sources to talk or audience development teams trying to get eyes on a story, it makes sense to want a verified account; it made you look like a person somebody had vetted. Blue checks also assured a journalist’s followers that the story they shared was a real article from the paper and not a hoax.

The blue check system wasn’t a cure-all for fraud, lies, and other misinformation—Twitter’s long history of content moderation problems is well documented, plus it made a number of missteps deciding who and why to verify over the years—but verification did help the platform operate as a “town square” for sharing information. There’s a reason why every other major social platform, including Facebook and TikTok, cribbed the blue badges for their own networks. They have been at least moderately helpful.

There’s another reason why blue checks spread around platforms: Blue checks make people feel important. They tell the world who sits in the VIP section. (Another reason why they were copied by other networks. They all wanted a velvet rope.) It appears Musk sees them as the digital equivalent of a fancy watch or rare sneaker. Why not charge for that? Viewed as a premium accessory, this would-be clout tax looks logical enough.

But the idea of the blue check as something you could buy to look cool misapprehends its appeal. Reducing the blue checks to straightforward, purchasable status symbols hampers their original function, which in turn will remove any non-dorky justification for having them. Now, when anyone can purchase the check, the authentication factor diminishes. All that is left is that goofy idea that these check marks bestow clout, which is an increasingly shaky proposition.

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VIP sections are the terrain of the vain and vapid, after all. During the Trump era, “blue check” turned into a handy insult. Calling someone “blue check” meant they were smarmy, elitist, cornball, cringe. Full-fledged celebrities and multinational corporations clearly get verified to avoid the headache of hoaxes. The rest of us, though? For the mid-tier posters, the mid-career journalists, the pundits, pedants, and podcasters—well, any argument that we have the blue check solely to avoid imposters sounds as unbelievable as a trend-chasing hypebeast insisting that he only bought a Supreme-branded fire log to keep warm in the winter.

Some of us enjoyed sitting behind the velvet rope; we also enjoyed insisting we were behind said rope for practical purposes. The pay model destroys that delusion.

There’s bound to be some segment of Twitter users who do shell out for this expanded version of Twitter Blue; it’s not like the platform will instantly become a ghost town once this change takes place. But I suspect the people who buy verification won’t overlap too much with the people who currently have it. There’ll be more entrepreneurs, a rush of people selling stuff. It will be easier for scammers to scam: even if Twitter does have the staff on hand to thoroughly vet each potential verified account, anyone inclined toward fraud could submit legitimate-looking information and then, once verified, change their profile to dupe others. The Blue Check Rapture will signal the end of an era even more than Musk’s first day in the Twitter office.

I admit it: I like my little blue check, for silly reasons. It makes me feel a bit special, like somebody somewhere had decided I mattered. I always knew that liking the blue check was part of a larger personality defect, though. (Craving validation from strangers.) And I’d rather drive a Tesla into a volcano than pay for verification. It’d be way too embarrassing.

Musk described verification as a system of “lords & peasants” in a recent tweet defending his new plan. But this isn’t a case of the proletariat overthrowing nobility—it’s the petulant new king stripping all titles, then demanding a tax to create a new gentry in his own image. What’s the point of paying for a status symbol that announces your status as pathetic?

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