A verifiable disaster
Twitter is set to kill legacy Verified accounts starting April 1, and it will degrade network trust as a result. How does someone pay $44 billion for something they don't understand?
Even in the context of Elon Musk’s brief ownership of the Birdsite, tomorrow is going to be a defining day of this new era:
April Fool’s Day. Nice.
Twitter is replacing its system of verifying people independently with an $8/month subscription model that gives you all the visual cue of the blue-and-white check icon but none of the individual or network benefits that the checkmark has historically fostered. I’m here to tell you that this change isn’t going to be good for anything or anyone, and in that calculation I include Twitter’s need to make money.
Let’s start with why the checkmark exists at all. It’s the byproduct of Twitter’s rapid growth in the early years. As a community of any sort grows, all those credibility judgments that exist as an outcome of relationships and interactions become harder to build.
Think of a small town of 100 people where everyone knows each other. Folks there don’t need to verify who is who or who did/said what, because it’s all out in the open. But move to a large city like New York, and suddenly they have to build other ways of judging trustworthiness, because network size detaches those judgments from actual interaction as a matter of probability.
As Twitter grew in scale and became less a place where you talked with friends a lot, new voices came into the system and created openings for trolls and spammers to find a big audience. Those types of accounts don’t hang out in dead zones; they thrive by being around lots of people, and so a big community is attractive for troublemakers. It’s a problem that lives at the nexus of connection of information - as we formally know people in the network less and less due to its size, how we deal with the simultaneous spike in information on that larger network becomes a user problem. We have less pathways to build trust, but a lot more need for trust.
Badge verification was always an imperfect solution, but it was trying to fix the basic problem of whether the person tweeting this thing was who they say they are. That’s really it. It has been painted by detractors as some sort of elite club, or that their tweets were given more weight, but that’s nonsense. Verified people tweet stupid or incorrect things pretty frequently. The value was in verification that X information was attached to Y name, that the person tweeting that true thing or that nonsense is who they say they are. In a large network there is more incentive to spoof celebrities or people with expertise, and so verifying the conversation itself is real has value in a sprawling network.
Another way to think about this: verification has particular contexts. I’m a media scholar, so when I’m tweeting about media, that check is the cue that “this scholar is who they are purporting to be,” and thus that layer of expertise can be applied by a reader. But if I’m tweeting about something outside my field, the check mark has little value. Sure, you know it’s me when I’m tweeting about the Star War, but my noteworthiness in my field doesn’t grant me any heft outside of it. Those types of statements are judged for credibility by other means, such as experience with me on that topic outside my field. Verification alone doesn’t give me any status on all topics, in other words.
In networks of enormous size, particularly open ones such as Twitter (compared to the relatively closed space of Facebook, where verification doesn’t much matter), users need help understanding the conversation and figuring out who is who. I don’t think of myself as noteworthy, but someone who encounters me should at least be able to know that what’s coming from my account is coming from me.
So the legacy verification system, which tagged people of note for audience benefit, has two implications.
For readers, it’s a mechanism that lets them make sense of all the information coming at them in a rapid-fire environment like Twitter, though crucially it doesn’t do anything to help you figure out if something is true. It’s just a contextual layer that shapes how you see that information they post.
For verified users, the checkmark encourages them to keep posting. Many legacy verified folks were high-volume people, creating value (with zero compensation) for Twitter. I’m one of them! If I am getting spoofed or think it could easily happen, I’m less likely to create things that give Twitter value. Legacy verification was always an acknowledgement that my posts were of enough importance that the platform wanted to prevent impersonation, and that’s a nudge for me to keep posting with confidence.
This is a great thread that talks about the creator side of the equation. I posted the most relevant tweet here, but you can click on it and pick up the whole rationale from a former Twitter insider:
So let’s talk about how legacy verification worked. First you had to apply for it, and demonstrate why you are a public enough figure that adding that checkmark trust icon to your profile would be beneficial to the network. The judgment on whether you made your case well was entirely in Twitter’s purview, and they denied a lot of applications. But if you got accepted, you still had to send in proof of identity (including official ID). Twitter had humans behind the scenes verifying you were who you said you were.
If I had any quibble with this policy, it’s that the process should not have been exclusive. Anyone who wanted to be verified should have been able to do so, with some conditions. First, you’d have to use your real name somewhere (in your handle, or in your display name). Second, you’d have to use 2-factor authentication to keep your account secure. Finally, I would’ve greatly expanded the kind of information a user can get about a verified person. Some general information about name, what city they live in, and where their notable interest/expertise was. That way if you encounter someone’s tweets, you can learn more about them and add that context to what you read from them.
Would someone who isn’t notable and just wants to read and very occasionally post go through this rigorous process, particularly if it comes with some loss of privacy (which honestly would put them on par with a public figure in that sense)? Probably not. But it should have been open to all, and it would not have been outrageous to even charge a small administrative fee for the privilege. Crucially, it would have avoided the perception of legacy verification being an elite badge.
Opening legacy verification to all would have increased transparency and trust, and I have long believed it was a huge mistake to not do this. The checkmark-for-all could have meant something substantial about where that information was coming from, and arguably would have increased trust in ways that would have attracted users and advertisers. Instead, by making Twitter’s own standards about noteworthiness a gatekeeper, the process created an air of exclusivity that wasn’t warranted. Being verified was never about being an elite. The benefits weren’t there.
And Elon actually agrees with me on this point about it not being open to all.
The problem is how he executed it. Rather than welcoming everyone into the old system, which had a lot of rigor and created value for readers, he chose to confuse people by keeping the same iconography while gutting the actual verification part.
So about the new checkmark, and all its problems. The problem with the legacy verification system is people like Elon absorbed the view that the checkmark was an elite badge, and he saw a commodity where there was none. He announced last year that this legacy verification system—which, let’s be clear, actually verified people—was going to be placed with a new “verification” system that gave people a checkmark if they paid $8 a month for Twitter Blue.
The new system saw the checkmark as a valuable signal and ignored all of the important process and context that gave it value. The check had no inherent value, but rather derived its value from the fact that people had to go through a rigorous process to earn it.
So the checkmark became pay-to-play, but in doing so:
Did not actually verify people were who they claimed to be, which led to a lot of hilarious and horrifying spoofs
Kept the same visual signal for readers, meaning readers were encountering blue checks on Twitter and thinking those people were VERIFIED verified rather than people who just paid for the icon.
Worse, beginning in April the company has said paid checks will be amplified algorithmically in “For You” tab recommendations and replies, meaning people who want to pay a lot of money to yell will get a boost. Tell me if that sounds fun to you.
You won’t believe what will happen next. Think about what this type of change does to information trust. Suddenly a useful visual signal that added trust layers to information is stripped of all those layers but readers aren’t prodded to sort through the implications of that. So you end up with people falling for spoofs and misinformation because Elon never understood the value those legacy verifications brought to the network.
Worse, it will degrade the experience for high-volume legacy folks. Once I realized I could be spoofed in ways that would harm my reputation or affect my status with my employer, I began to mentally withdraw from the network. The vast majority of us who were legacy verified absolutely will not give Elon money to keep the check. I am confident of that. But even worse, the loss of the badge incentivizes us to post less and lurk more, or outright abandon Twitter.
I’m clear-eyed about Twitter’s need to make money here. Elon overpaid, and there are bills and creditors to pay. I used to subscribe to the old Twitter Blue pre-Elon-era because of the edit feature, but it wasn’t worth the cost. Some of his ideas about paying for new features, or even possibly paying an admin fee for legacy verification are directions they could pursue.
But just charging people to keep the same old icon someone else gets for ponying up a credit card strips the icon of all its signal value, both for the person posting and for the people reading. To charge people, you have to know where the value lies, and so far there is no sense from Twitter HQ that it knows that the value of the badge was always trust and never about status.
If status was the value-add for to us, many would pay for it because that would be its intrinsic value. But that people are not lining up for this tells you that the people who had the checkmark saw it as something very different than what it’s becoming and what Elon thought it was. Paying Elon $100 a year is basically lighting your money on fire. I mean, check out this beautiful thread of all the news companies who are aw-hell-no-ing the $1000 gold corporate verification scam. If the checkmark had any value they’d pay, but the statements reflect the new reality. Here’s just one:
Oof. April 1 feels like the beginning of the end of my time on Twitter. The network experience will be degraded to the point it’ll lose its usefulness.
That is the long-term disaster for Twitter. I don’t care if I’m losing my checkmark. It just means I’ll post less, and that I’ll leave if impersonations become a thing. Social networks need users and attention, and a degraded experience full of trolls and impersonators is a kind of Reverse Bat Signal that sends people to other platforms.
If nothing else, that’s why Twitter should’ve reversed course on this plan. Keep legacy checks blue; let others pay for features and get an, oh I don’t know, a red checkmark to keep that visual information cue distinct. But instead, by flattening who gets the badge you’re also eviscerating trust layers that make the network useful.
Less users, less attention, less ad dollars. The math is not in Twitter’s favor over the long haul.
Jeremy Littau is an associate professor of journalism and communication at Lehigh University. Find him on Mastodon or Twitter.