Last week, Twitter temporarily suspended its verification process after it received criticism for giving the blue “verified” check mark to Jason Kessler, a white supremacist who had organized a rally this summer in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the proposed removal of a Confederate monument; a peaceful protester was killed at the rally. The blue check mark, initially intended to help Twitter users identify authentic, notable accounts, is now commonly viewed as the platform’s way of conferring status to select users. “Verification was meant to authenticate identity & voice but it is interpreted as an endorsement or an indicator of importance. We recognize that we have created this confusion and need to resolve it. We have paused all general verifications while we work and will report back soon,” the company tweeted.
With its verification system up for an overdue overhaul, it’s a good time to ask ourselves what purpose it serves. Does the blue check mark make Twitter better? — Kate Knibbs
Victor Luckerson: I mean, it makes me feel better about using Twitter, but I am a person who writes things on the internet for money in the hopes that other people will read them, which means I am in a battle against my own narcissism at all times.
Alyssa Bereznak: The purpose of the blue check mark has always been pretty vague. According to some recent reporting on Motherboard, Twitter employees have always seen it as a way to signify that a user is a “Very Important Tweeter” (or VIT). I would say that most people on the social network see it similarly. Sure, it exists to verify that you are, indeed, the person you say you are, but that doesn’t seem as necessary if you’re not a celebrity or a media personality.
Justin Charity: It makes Twitter better for verified users in marginal ways that remain mysterious to nonverified users. The company communication about what verification means and why it’s desirable has always been vague and crappy.
Michael Baumann: I’ve been verified for two weeks, and it’s changed nothing about my Twitter experience, but in real life I do find myself falling into massive Hall and Oates dance numbers like Joseph Gordon-Levitt in 500 Days of Summer.
Charity: It’s only unambiguously useful as a way of signaling that an account isn’t an impostor account.
Luckerson: Oh, to live in the days when someone impersonating Shaq was the biggest of Twitter’s problems.
Knibbs: I originally felt like the blue check mark made me look slightly more legitimate as a journalist, but now that I’ve been in the company of literal white supremacists, I’m not sure it serves any real function beyond an ego stroke.
Molly McHugh: I really used to think it was helpful in signifying that you were a journalist or some other profession that was to be taken seriously, but that doesn’t feel like the case at all anymore. If it were changed to somehow mean “this is the actual Molly McHugh,” then that would be more worthwhile; Facebook, for all its issues, obviously is far more able to work as an identification method.
Baumann: That’s exactly it — if anything, I feel like we’ve largely learned how to weed out the fake celebrities, or at least not to fall for them as easily as we did when verification was young. Maybe this is a failure of my imagination in the age of “RT first and ask questions later,” but fake accounts would seem most dangerous for people who aren’t verified now — people with no significant public reputation or access to another media platform to expose an impostor.
Bereznak: Before we go any further, I just want to say that William Shatner warned us about this.
One of the proposals I’ve seen floated is to open up verification so that it primarily serves to show that users are not bots. Would that help the situation?
Baumann: Imagine how much work it’d be to verify even a fraction of the total accounts. Getting to the point where a bot couldn’t fool your identity checkers would swamp the system, unless you wanted to tempt the gods of irony and automate the bot-weeding-out process. Never mind that exposing the bots isn’t in Twitter’s best interest since it’d show how inflated the user numbers almost certainly are.
Bereznak: I agree that the process seems daunting, but I do think there could be a tier system. Maybe there’s a yellow check mark if you’ve submitted the bare minimum of identifying information. And there’s a green one if you give Twitter your address and it sends you a postcard with a code on it. (NextDoor does this.) The blue check can still be the ego stroker.
McHugh: I think it’s impossible to fix what’s going on now; Twitter can’t expose how many bots and fake accounts it has, adding tiers feels like an impossible process (it can’t even deal with its harassment issue), and taking verification away arbitrarily or entirely isn’t an option.
I think we’re probably stuck.
Knibbs: They can at least stop verifying white supremacists, though.
Bereznak: What a low bar we’ve reached.
Charity: If I’m Twitter, why should I spend god sums of money developing and managing a complex tier system? Sounds hard.
Baumann: Plus — and not to table the white supremacists — if there’s a stratifying force I’d trust less than the Invisible Hand of the Market, it’s the Twitter chuckleheads.
Luckerson: I don’t think they’d get too many people on a largely anonymous platform to offer up their addresses. Maybe journalists would want that to more easily vet news, but people like Twitter because it’s a lightweight way to sound off and magnify their own opinions/version of the facts without consequence.
Bereznak: There’s a financial incentive here. One of the reasons that Disney declined to buy Twitter in 2016 was because it was so full of trolls and harassment. This is as much a “user experience” problem as it is a fraught political one, and addressing it is in Twitter’s financial interests.
McHugh: My guess is that, internally, there will be some sort of mandate that says the bad guys — white supremacists, etc. — won’t get verified anymore. But nothing else will much change, and verification will roll out in exactly the same way it has: randomly and without explanation.
Baumann: Maybe I’m being overly cynical, but this strikes me as more of a “won’t” than “can’t” issue, because as a “disruptive” tech company, it’s more ideologically in line for Twitter to trend toward ochlocracy just out of a pure distaste for regulation.
Bereznak: [Takes long drag from a cigarette.] Welcome to the club, sweetie.
Knibbs: If there’s no foreseeable meaningful fix, and verification doesn’t really mean anything … why be verified? Should we cast off our blue checks?
Baumann: OK, Spartacus. You go first.
Charity: No, don’t be one of those annoying media people who tries to turn not being verified into a fashion statement.
We’re in too deep like Mekhi Phifer.
McHugh: I remember when I got my blue check mark I was like, “I’m a real writer now!,” and it’s really hilarious I ever thought that. I have flirted with quitting Twitter in the past few months, so I don’t care.
McHugh: This is going to publish and I’ll wake up blue-check-mark-less.
Knibbs: And possibly liberated!
Luckerson: Any hierarchy of influence the check mark might have established has been replaced by the algorithmic feed. Tweets blow up today because they’re able to attract RTs for days and often come from small, nonverified accounts.
Is the answer to leave Twitter and try this all over again somewhere else?
Charity: I think that “flirting with quitting Twitter,” a classic new media dream, is a crucial part of the dynamic here. I tend to think of Twitter’s failure to do most things that its critics have spent a decade clamoring for it to do is the company’s way of calling our bluff.
McHugh: Yeah, I think maybe at one point in time, that blue check mark helped me in small ways. I’m not sure it does now, and there’s certainly more mainstream criticism of it.
Charity: “Ain’t nobody quitting Twitter,” says Twitter, implicitly.
McHugh: How about “use way, way less”?
Baumann: Quitting Twitter is the new not owning a TV.
Knibbs: “‘Memba ME?!” Ello sobs from an abandoned basement.
Bereznak: It’s true. We’re all hooked. I’m looking at my Twitter timeline as I type this.
Baumann: I managed to get the @baumann handle in Ello, so if we all decide to migrate there I’d be cool with it. It’s also problematic that part of the “ain’t nobody quitting Twitter” bet is that this for-profit company has managed to become the closest thing our society has to the agora, so you have to use its product or risk becoming disengaged. Reading that sentence back I realize now that I spend way too much time on the internet.
Knibbs: I think the main takeaway from this chat might be that we all spend too much time on the internet. And even if we haven’t found a way out of Twitter’s verification morass, at least we’ve come to grips with who we are as people.
Bereznak: At least we all have blue check marks to show for it.