Elon Musk's Twitter fundamentally misunderstands what made Twitter useful in the first place. In an attempt to wring blood from a stone, Twitter’s announced that all the original "blue checks"—initially created as a way to verify that someone was who they said they were—will disappear on April 1st. Instead, blue checks will once again be for sale, just as they were briefly, when Musk took control. April 1 is a date that makes it hard to take anything seriously but, since this isn’t the first time Twitter’s tried this, let's delve into the problems that selling verifications poses.
Twitter used to do a better job of content moderation than many of its social media competitors. The company tended to err on the side of labeling objectionable content rather than removing it. Twitter had an admirable commitment to transparency and standing up for its users (that isn't to say it was good: content moderation at scale almost never turns out well. It simply had smarter failures than the rest).
Twitter’s good qualities—features and practices that many users all over the world came to rely on—are all but gone now.
Twitter first introduced blue checkmarks in 2009, after celebrities complained of being impersonated on the platform. While verification was only available to well-known public figures (e.g. actors, athletes, politicians) at first, checkmarks were later rolled out to companies, journalists, activists, and even social media influencers. In 2016, the company briefly rolled out a verification application process, so individuals who could prove their notability could get verified. That process was shut down after a white supremacist was verified through it, and wasn’t reopened until late 2020, with tighter qualifications.
Although the specifics of Twitter’s verification procedures were often criticized, the blue checkmarks served an important function: verifying that a person or company was exactly who they said they were. It's partially what made Twitter so beloved by journalists: it was harder to accidentally include a tweet by a joke account in your reporting. It also saved a lot of journalists from hunting down an email address or a public relations person when they wanted to contact someone—far easier to just send a DM. Furthermore, journalists with the checkmarks were clearly also who they said they were, making it more likely they'd get responses from subjects who could tell that they were legitimate reporters.
It was also an alternative to, say, Facebook's real name policy, which is a source of constant difficulty, pain, and danger for people with serious reasons for not wanting their names attached to their posts. A checkmark lets people choose to participate under their “real names,” while also giving other users the ability to decide if they want to trust a non-verified person.
Twitter was one the few platforms left that let you default to a chronological feed of accounts that you followed. Twitter added context to its list of trending topics, going a long way towards addressing the common panic on seeing someone’s name as a “trending topic” and assuming they had died when, in fact, it was just their birthday. It also added some context to unhelpfully broad trending topics—for example, these days, "Californians" is often listed under "trending in California." Alone, it tells you nothing of value. That, too, is gone.
Twitter also used to have a notation informing you which tool was used to publish each tweet. This lets savvy users make reliable inferences about which tweets were pre-planned, which were sent by an aide, and which originated with the person whose name was on the account—a very useful feature for reporting based on tweets.
Twitter also occasionally fact-checked items that were gaining traction, adding context and more information to a tweet. Once again, counterspeech is preferable to removing content most of the time.
One of the few content moderation innovations that remains intact on Twitter is the feature that pops up a dialog box asking if you've read an article before you can share it. This was added to curb mis- and disinformation. Perhaps most of us are so desensitized to pop-ups we don't even notice, but it's still a good step to add a little friction to otherwise mindlessly shared links.
All these things added value to Twitter as a service—but as valuable as they are, none of them are monetizable, at least in the way the online social media marketplace currently works. Allowing users to buy these features makes them useless or even counterproductive.
Why Twitter Was Socially Valuable (And Isn't Anymore)
Twitter has always punched above its weight in the importance vs. size /profitability leagues. Twitter’s emphasis on unfiltered sharing of text—rather than audio and video material that has a higher bar—made it an easy way for important people to put out statements. The utility of this was demonstrated early in the platform’s history, when it was used by Egyptian demonstrators to get the word out about events on the ground in January 2011.
The platform was also built to be publicly accessible. Locked Twitter accounts exist, but they are less common than, say, Facebook accounts with restricted privacy settings. Twitter’s popularity among journalists led to tweets being cited with disproportionate frequency, compared with other, larger platforms.
Twitter, however, has never been a driver of traffic. Twitter users don't click links or ads in nearly the same way that happens on Facebook and Google. In those cases, the number of users and the data the companies have on them drives their ad business. And the number of people who see and click on Facebook and Google ads is what they are selling. That is not Twitter's utility. It can't be. Twitter isn't big enough.
Twitter's worldwide user base, as of December 2022, was 368 million monthly active users. This figure is projected to decrease to approximately 335 million by 2024. That is a lot of people, but Facebook has nearly 3 billion users. TikTok has 1 billion. YouTube: 2.2 billion. Pinterest outdoes Twitter with 450 million. Since social media runs on ad revenue, the number of users is the single largest determinant of its ad rates. But Twitter couldn't sell itself on user base alone.
Twitter's utility wasn't in how many people used it, it was in who used it. From Hollywood celebrities to heads of state, journalists, activists, and so many more—Twitter was more valuable as a source than it was as a platform.
It is additionally a repository of useful statements by notable people at notable times. The platform has played host to a number of diplomatic spats, for instance: China and Australia, Canada and Saudi Arabia, and the U.S. and UK have all come to blows on the site.
The context of a trending topic, whether someone was verified, or how a tweet was published is also important for research and reporting. All of that is now gone.
It's difficult to sell an archive to advertisers. Eyeballs and the amount of time those eyeballs are on the site are what sells, and Twitter was never really able to solve that problem. Nor can the new Twitter do the same.
And there was another problem.
Twitter's Blue Check Problem
As with everything in this world, "blue checks" became a subject of both derision and jealousy. It became a symbol of elitism, since Twitter's process for awarding them was mostly based on its own evaluation of whether someone should have one or not.
In many cases, Twitter would approach an organization and have them submit the necessary information to verify its employees. This was how many journalists were verified. In other cases, the company would rely on trusted partners to help verify users, particularly outside of the U.S.
Opaque processes breed mistrust, contempt, and conspiracy. Since blue checkmarks indicated that a user was verified, tweets from blue-check accounts showed up more consistently and earlier in searches, and at the top of responses to popular tweets. When verified users all spoke to each other more often than to people without checkmarks—often because, as noted above, they work or worked with each other and therefore actually knew each other in real life—unverified users could feel left out, excluded from “the Twitter conversation.” To be fair, some users were excluded; it was relatively easy for an American newsroom journalist to get verified, for instance, but journalists in other countries did not have the same direct access.
These pre-takeover Twitter tools added value for the service’s users, but they often angered those who had Twitter put their posts in context. But those users could be mollified by getting something they desperately wanted: a blue check. The clamor to be among the "blue check elite" led the new Twitter to try a disastrous experiment in selling blue checks— an experiment they are poised to repeat, which will remove any remaining utility blue checks have as a form of verification.
In another development that would be funny if it weren’t so sad, some reports state that those who pay for a blue check will be able to hide it. Blue check marks are not a sign that someone is who they say they are, they are now merely a sign that someone cared enough to pay for Twitter's premium service. That strikes so many people as a terrible use of money that having a blue checkmark is once again a symbol of derision. So it serves… no purpose.
Furthermore, the major news organizations that loved Twitter have made it clear that they will not pay for blue checkmarks for their brands or reporters. In a bid to keep them on the platform, Twitter is reportedly going to exempt its most-followed companies from paying. One wonders if that will save a brand that is rapidly tarnished among its former super users.
The primary value in a blue check whose only qualification is a working credit card is as a tool to trick people who have somehow missed all this drama into believing a paid checkmark is a verified checkmark. We don’t have to speculate about this, as it’s what happened immediately the first time Twitter put the checkmark up for sale.
Social media platforms’ economic incentives simply don't value the socially important reasons behind verification, and verification was once what made Twitter useful.
If journalists can no longer easily figure out who said what, they will stop using Twitter as a source. As Twitter’s utility fades, so too will its prominence.
It is a shame, since Twitter was genuinely loved by the many who called it a hellsite—unlike its larger brethren, which many people use because they feel they have to. And it made genuine efforts at being worth something. Even those small movements forward are lost now, leaving us with terrible, algorithm-driven, monopolistic, data-harvesting nightmares.