Unverified reports

Elon Musk doesn’t understand the purpose of Twitter’s blue checkmark

Twitter's blue tick is not just for clout, despite what Musk might think
Elon Musk doesn’t understand the purpose of Twitter’s blue checkmark
Photo: Elon Musk/AFP (Getty Images)
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Elon Musk wants to make Twitter’s most prominent users pay.

According to The Verge, Musk wants to start charging for verification, taking away those little blue checkmarks unless verified users pay for a new $240-a-year tier of the subscription service Twitter Blue. While the policy hasn’t yet been announced, it shows that Musk fundamentally misunderstands the point of verification, the motivations of Twitter’s power users, and how to run an ad-supported platform.

Musk has already fired several top brass at Twitter and plans to lay off 75% of staff to cut costs in the aftermath of closing on a highly leveraged deal, according to the Washington Post. (Musk has denied this.) Layoffs are expected with deals like these, but Musk’s plan for a new revenue stream based on verification makes almost no sense for a company like Twitter.

Twitter’s blue checkmark isn’t just a status symbol

Musk might see the blue tick as a status symbol. But it’s not just about clout.

Twitter introduced verification in 2009 after a legal squabble with Tony La Russa, the former manager of the St. Louis Cardinals. La Russa sued Twitter because he was being impersonated on the platform. (Other celebrities including Kanye West had complained too.) While Twitter called the litigation “frivolous,” the lawsuit catalyzed their first actions on verification.

By 2013, Twitter refined its phrasing around verification: “Verification is currently used to establish authenticity of identities on Twitter. The verified badge helps users discover high-quality sources of information and trust that a legitimate source is authoring the account’s Tweets.”

By then, the company understood there was a dual purpose: The little blue tick is both a way to verify people are who they say they are and also convey to users who is a trustworthy source of information.

Let’s say you’re browsing on Twitter and see @ScottNover of @qz tweet out his article. You’ve never heard of Scott or Quartz, but the blue ticks in their profiles makes you think: “This is probably legit.” You can agree or disagree with the story, but you know that the user is who he says he is and works for a reputable news organization.

Twitter is a news platform

The truth is: People do rely on Twitter for news. According to Pew Research Center, 53% of US Twitter users go to the website for news. By comparison, only 44% of Facebook users, 37% of Reddit users, and 30% of YouTube users in the US go to those sites for news.

This is why advertisers spend money on the platform. Twitter (238 million daily users) is much less popular than Facebook (2 billion), for example, but it has a more focused user experience that centers around news.

If you’re Target or Walmart selling the latest Taylor Swift album on vinyl, you buy ads on Twitter while her fans are live-tweeting about it post-release. If you’re the ACLU, you advertise on Twitter during the height of Supreme Court season to maximize donations.

Brands depend on Twitter to insert their ads into relevant conversations without being placed next to misinformation or hate speech. Verified accounts make Twitter a more reliable place and help to sift through the onslaught of user-generated information. Commodifying verification makes it akin to a designer belt or an NFT—it conveys that not only are you important, but you paid $240 per year to show it.

Making a buck off Twitter’s power users

Musk wants to bet that people will pay for verification. Some undoubtedly will.

Many brands will pay for this. It’s crucial for a multinational corporation like Ford to have a verified account on Twitter. A-list celebrities will also likely pay. It’s easier for Gwyneth Paltrow to pay this fee than to have her publicist call TMZ every week to say, “No, she didn’t tweet that.”

But it’s a tough proposition for journalists, many of whom cannot afford an extra $240 per year just to maintain their online status. It’s also a tough proposition for influencers, B-list celebrities, and content creators trying to make money in the creator economy. Many video platforms such as YouTube and TikTok pay creators to post on the platform (even if it’s a fraction of a penny per view). Not only does Twitter get its most prominent users to tweet for free, the new owner now expects them to pay for the privilege of being more easily recognized online. This flies in the face of recent trend lines and will handicap Musk’s goal is to compete with other platforms and attract more creators.

Musk needs journalists to be verified

What Musk doesn’t realize is that he needs journalists and other authoritative sources of information to be verified more than we need the blue tick. Despite his jibes about fake news, Musk needs such sources to stay on the platform and promote their work. Without us, the free news engine of Twitter will get snarled up by unreliable reports from deceptive or unaccountable actors. It’ll be more difficult for everyone to figure out what’s reliable and what isn’t—and advertisers will surely take notice. It will also make Twitter the very opposite of the free-debate, town-square utopia that Musk claims to desire.