February 23, 2024


Washington
CNN
 — 

Days after Elon Musk’s Twitter purged blue check marks from VIP users and prominent organizations, the checks reappeared on the accounts of a number of high-profile figures, many of whom promptly stressed they did not ask for or did not want the new verification badge.

Those in the latter camp include the rapper Lil Nas X, The New York Times, the scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson, the journalist Kara Swisher, and even the legendary satirical account @dril, to name a few.

Even the accounts of public figures known to be deceased, including Bob Saget, Kirstie Alley and Barbara Walters, have had their verification restored, and it is unclear how many of those badges Twitter may be handing out at no charge.

The spectacle only added to mounting chaos at Twitter and highlighted how Musk has helped erode the value of the blue check at precisely the moment he’s betting on it to help drive subscription revenue for his company after a massive drop in its core advertising business.

Once a recognizable online status symbol that was universally understood to authenticate influential accounts on the platform, the blue check’s symbol has evolved into something more confusing thanks to Musk’s decision to make it available for a price. It has also become outright politicized and a kind of referendum on Musk himself, reflected in the recent dueling hashtags #paythe8, backed by supporters of the new-style verification, facing off against #blocktheblue, which represents its critics.

Over the weekend, numerous high-profile people announced — with apparent despair — that they too had been “punished” with verification badges. Some, including actor Chrissy Teigen, reported difficulties trying to get the check mark removed, attempting to change their display names to get it to disappear. (Teigen ultimately succeeded.)

“It attached itself to me,” Teigen tweeted of the badge. “How did it happen so fast. like the movie It Follows.”

The celebrity backlash, combined with the fact that Twitter apparently had to restore some of the badges at its own initiative and expense, reflects not only massive gaps in Musk’s plan and execution, but also how isolated Musk is from many of the celebrity users whose content has long kept Twitter afloat.

The week after buying Twitter for $44 billion, Musk denounced the platform’s legacy approach to verifying celebrities, news organizations and government accounts.

“Twitter’s current lords & peasants system for who has or doesn’t have a blue checkmark is bull***t,” Musk declared in November, announcing a plan to offer verified badges to any user who paid a monthly fee. “Power to the people! Blue for $8/month.”

Musk decision to move forward with this plan, first by rolling out a paid verification option as part of the company’s subscription product Twitter Blue, and now by removing legacy blue checks from accounts, has seemingly led to unintended consequences at every step, including a wave of troubling impersonations and the potential for new scams and misinformation. His attempts to address these unforced errors has led him back to the very system he supposedly abolished — one in which Twitter unilaterally decides who is worthy or important enough to receive a verified badge.

Twitter Verified account seen in an iPhone screen in Vancouver, Canada, on Dec. 9 2022.

The major difference now is that Musk gets to call the shots. But in the process, he has made verification an even less transparent and meaningful indicator.

Instead of conveying authenticity, Twitter verification is now fraught with multiple conflicting messages. Depending on the context, verification can now reflect a kind of loyalty pledge, a signal of proud support for the direction Musk is taking the company. Or, for some who did not want a badge but received one anyway, it reflects a kind of shame or embarrassment, a distinct sense of un-coolness. For still others, it is a suckers’ mark, a symbol of gullibility and subservience.

“So, how do all the Musk fanboys and MAGA folks on this site feel about the fact that your conquering hero said he’d bring ‘equality’ and ‘people power’ to this site and then charged you all for Twitter Blue while giving it to people like me for free?” tweeted MSNBC host Mehdi Hasan. “Do you feel… owned?”

The refusal of high-profile users to pay for verification is forcing Musk to pivot in ways that directly undermine the egalitarianism he claims to promote and raise questions about Twitter’s long-term potential to generate revenue.

For weeks, many legacy verified users had signaled they would not be paying for Twitter Blue. The list of the unwilling included institutional users such as The New York Times as well as individuals such as the actor William Shatner.

When the change finally went into effect on Thursday, Musk’s anticipated wave of subscriptions did not immediately pan out. According to independent researcher Travis Brown, who has been keeping a running tally of paying Twitter users, the past few days have resulted in a net increase of just 12,000 Twitter Blue accounts, for a total of 551,517. By comparison, Twitter’s last publicly disclosed figures before it went private reported more than 237 million active users.

Some of those refusing to pay included LeBron James, Stephen King and Shatner. So Musk said he was comping their subscriptions, and only theirs. But that claim proved short-lived.

Accounts belonging to everyone from President Joe Biden to Pope Francis also had their verification status restored, marking them as “a government or multilateral organization account.” And over the weekend, the checks once again appeared on the accounts of influential users who claimed not to have paid for them, creating the false perception that they had.

New York City journalist Pat Kiernan, in describing his struggles to delete the new badge, has called it a thing of “regret” and “the opposite of desirable.”

Put differently, changes to the badge’s substantive meaning did nothing to reduce the arbitrariness of the labeling but also led to the complete collapse of the badge’s cultural currency. And that is no small thing when Musk has tied the fate of the platform to subscription revenue.

Musk’s initial plan appears to have been dependent on leveraging verification’s existing cachet as a status symbol to drive subscriptions. There are other features of Twitter’s subscription product, including the ability to edit tweets, but the paid verification option is a key selling point.

But the very act of changing what verification meant has fundamentally transformed the badge’s value proposition into something few people appear to, well, value.

Elon Musk has been on a long campaign to rethink how verification works on Twitter, but it may be leading to unintended consequences.

Supporters of the new verification system have criticized those unwilling to pay as cheapskates or worse, and the argument would have an internal sort of logic if the new product did the same thing as the old product. What Musk is selling instead is a different product, and the result is nothing more than the free market’s collective shrug.

Perhaps there was never going to be a world where high-profile accounts simply went unverified. After all, Musk needs famous people to be verified so that when users are shown Twitter’s algorithmically assembled For You feed by default, there will be quality content there for them to interact with. It doesn’t benefit Twitter for celebrity accounts to be buried along with the other non-paying accounts Musk has said the platform will demote.

And that highlights the nagging problem Musk cannot escape: Despite his populist rhetoric, Musk’s backtracking on verification is yet another reminder that the internet and social media are not the democratizing force Silicon Valley keeps insisting it is, but a reincarnation of all the existing power structures and influence centers of the physical world.

Some people really are so important that you’d want viewers to know it’s really them, payment or not.

As if to underscore the issue, when Fox News and show host Tucker Carlson cut ties on Monday, it was a dramatic news event that seemed tailor-made for the real-time Twitter commentary that has always been central to the platform’s appeal. But instead of helping to drive engagement, the new verification system just seemed to get in the way, as some users expressed initial doubt as to whether the journalist accounts reporting the news were authentic.


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