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Twitter Blue Checks Are No Longer a “Status Symbol.” They’re a Political One.

Elon Musk’s subscription service was pitched as a great equalizer, but that requires imagining an alternative history of what the verification badge even was, how it was implemented, and to what purpose

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Elon Musk has spent the past several months launching Twitter Blue, the successor to the platform’s old verification system and its divisive emblem, “the blue check.” The launch has so far proved unsuccessful and endlessly controversial.

Last week, in the final phase of the rollout for Twitter Blue, Musk revoked “legacy” verifications—the old markers of accounts “of public interest”—once and for all. The blue check is now reserved for users who have subscribed to the service and verified their phone number; except that isn’t quite right because Musk also made a passive-aggressive show of comping subscriptions for LeBron James, Stephen King, and William Shatner, who each expressed reluctance to pay into the new verification system. Those celebs aren’t alone in that sentiment: The Twitter Blue subscriber base is small, and the subscription cancellation rate is high. Some users simply aren’t interested in the premium features of Twitter Blue, which we’ll get to shortly. But Musk’s fiercest critics see the new blue check as deforming the old verification system into a pay-to-play scheme designed to flood the platform with trashy posts from cryptocurrency shills and right-wing anons.

Twitter Blue, by virtue of being open to everyone, is all about monetization and engagement. Critics of the critics see a bunch of defensive snobs who can’t resist the urge to characterize content produced by regular users, as opposed to legacy media players, as inherently trashy.

Who is right?

Let’s set the controversy aside for a moment and grapple with the product. Practically, Twitter Blue is a premium subscription tier offering users exclusive access to new features for $8 a month. Subscribers can format text, exceed the standard character limit, preview tweets before publishing, and—at long last—edit tweets after publishing. They can also reduce their exposure to ads and increase the general visibility of their own tweets in public interactions and search results. Twitter Blue would ideally make Twitter a bit more like YouTube: a platform for content creators to build audiences and launch careers outside of mainstream media. (This is why Jack Dorsey’s Twitter found its biggest rival in Facebook but Musk’s Twitter finds its biggest rival in Substack.) Musk is also determined to expand the audio and video features of Twitter via Twitter Blue.

Twitter Blue is a decent offering on its own terms, but it’s also a pretty drastic overhaul of the utility it’s replacing. The point of verification under the old system was simply to assure users that @aplusk was, in fact, Ashton Kutcher, and not one of the countless impersonators. The blue check made life on the site easier for Kutcher, his millions of followers, and anyone else on the site who wanted to search for him. But the verification system was somewhat opaque. Twitter awarded the blue badges to brands, celebrities, politicians, and journalists—more on this last group later—in a weirdly secretive, off-menu process that over the years cultivated some ambiguity about eligibility and status envy among users. Musk sought to dispel this sort of anxiety with universal eligibility for Twitter Blue.

Socially and politically though, Twitter Blue is something else. Musk has pitched the service as a great equalizer—a way of devolving power on the platform from entitled professionals and institutional mouthpieces to the unwashed masses. The trouble with this mission is in the political details. Musk openly spoke about buying Twitter with the intention of curbing the supposed left-wing bias in the platform’s content moderation, but he also claimed to oppose extremists in general and said he wanted to improve the quality of life and discourse on Twitter for so-called normies. This sounds sensible enough if you’re not too hung up on the “bothsidesism” in this outlook on current left-right dynamics. But then you observe Musk on Twitter for any amount of time and see him shitposting right-wing memes that suggest an alternative desire to turn the place into 4chan. You also observe him celebrating the demise of the old system only to force the old blue checks into the new system, somewhat defeating the point, while berating them in the process. You think, This marketing pitch needs work.

Over the past several months, Musk has articulated his vision for Twitter Blue in a variety of tweets, some more constructive than others. But I actually found his outlook expressed a bit more sensibly and succinctly in a recent tweet from Cameron Winklevoss: “The original blue checkmark was about status. The new blue checkmark is about utility.” (Musk replied, “Exactly.”)

The tweet from Winklevoss is helpful because it clarifies the influence of this assumption that the blue check was originally “about status.” It wasn’t really—plenty of high-status users, such as @dril, never had blue checks (until Musk spite-verified him), and plenty of low-status users did—but the idea that the blue check was “about status” is based on some understandable observations about eligibility. The old blue check is better understood, in less combative terms, as a marker of users who, in some sense, used Twitter for work. For these users, Twitter was an extension of their conventional employment. Celebrities were on the platform to publicize their work and manage their brands. Politicians were on the platform to disseminate their messages and leverage the news cycle. Journalists were on Twitter for a variety of reasons—Twitter is a news feed and discourse machine, and it quickly proved its power to advance careers in web journalism as the news business has become largely for, by, and about the internet and social media. Most journalists are not celebrities, of course, but they’re a class of users who need to contact sources, break news, and report on developing stories using the platform. So verification under the old system was practically useful to journalists and their followers. Without a meaningful verification process, Twitter Blue is genuinely less valuable than the old system.

There are plenty of users who at one point would’ve gladly paid $8 a month for the edit button alone. Musk can blame his haters for his failures all he wants, but he more or less forced them to second-guess the wisdom of turning their credit card information over to a guy who is constantly tweeting about how much he resents them and their prominence on his platform. I don’t know whom he plans to blame for his hypocrisy in playing up the egalitarian potential of Twitter Blue only to immediately comp a subscription for LeBron James. Musk has at least successfully convinced a right-aligned faction of culture warriors that $8 a month for Twitter Blue isn’t merely a good deal but a civilizational pledge to save free speech, eradicate the woke mind virus, own the libs, honor the founding fathers, and so on. This is one way to turn a profit. Is it enough?

Elon and his critics are both right about one thing: Twitter Blue will likely transform the culture of the platform, for better or worse. It would indeed be cool to see Twitter take some risks to reimagine the platform as one that incentivizes a different style of engagement and empowers a greater variety of users—what Substack is doing with newsletters and Notes, effectively. But on Twitter, I get the sense that we’re ultimately watching the emergence of a crypto-libertarian echo chamber filled with hustles and resentments. A bit more friendly to so-called populists, perhaps, but still a hellsite at its core, to the bitter end.