After a pause of a few years, Twitter announced today that they're going to resume allowing any user to request the blue verification checkmark for their account. The social and technical dynamics around Twitter verification remain as fraught and fascinating as they were in the earliest days of the service, but the process and critically, the meaning, of verification remain as opaque as ever.
My own Twitter account got verified in 2012 (back when the process was, approximately, "someone at Twitter likes your account, so...?") and I wrote about that experience on my site a few months later. Shortly thereafter, I became one of the top Google results for "twitter verification", a curse which has thankfully abated in the years since, and for a long while after, my Twitter DMs, email inbox, and even my phone's voice mail were plagued by a nonstop stream of dudes who were convinced that 1. I was able to get the verified and 2. the only reason I hadn't done so was that they had been insufficiently obnoxious. The only positive thing I got out of the experience was becoming friends with Hari Kondabolu, who actually did eventually get verified on Twitter. His was one of the thousands of accounts that got the blue checkmark over the last few years, during a period when Twitter's publicly-stated policy was that they weren't accepting any more accounts to be verified. Hmm.
But over the years, in talking to literally hundreds of people asking about getting verified, one of the questions I’ve most liked asking is “what does the check mark represent to you?” This was generally after I'd assured them that no, I really couldn't help get them verified, and no not even if they offered the pay. Their responses were always illuminating.
For folks inside the tech and media bubble, the answer often comes down to having access to better filters for responses or replies on the platform, or an aspiration to having their tweets better amplified by the algorithm. Both are legitimate, though relatively modest, goals. And of course no small part of it is that, despite Twitter's protestations that the checkmark only represents a signal that the account does belong to the person/entity that it claims to be, many people also feel it conveys a sort of status or credibility to the account and any tweets sent from it. Unsurprisingly, as with anything that's perceived to convey status, verification is one of the parts of Twitter that most consistently inspires resentment, anger, or frustration with the platform.
This has come to a head whenever an account is verified despite the fact that it's harmful or is spreading misinformation. I ranted a bit about this on Twitter itself years ago, but most of the points still hold true half a decade later.
Twitter verifies white supremacists because they wrongly believe verification is an internal corporate process, not a signifier in culture.— anildash (@anildash) December 12, 2016
Twitter has exacerbated this issue by overloading verification to mean more than just the stated purpose of "they are who they say they are". Verified users got access to a set of small, but meaningful, features like more control over filtering replies, and the ability to post longer videos. Over time, most of the features that were exclusive to verified accounts got shared out with all accounts, but the fact that there were Blue Check-Only features only amplified the sense that it was something of a private club, gated behind an invisible, exclusionary admissions process that wasn't documented anywhere.
No surprise, then, that this leads to some measure of conspiracy theories and magical thinking. Regular people outside of the media bubble have developed an entire set of folk beliefs around what verification means, based on what they tell me about why they want to be verified. There are intimations about doing better in Twitter's algorithm, of course — an entirely reasonable assumption. But there's also this broader sense that it opens up a world of possibilties. More than one guy has DMed me saying he needs to be verified because he's about to drop his mixtape, and he wants to make sure people hear it. There's a missing step between a few blue pixels and millions of ears that I don't quite have a grasp on, but I can certainly understand the emotional drive behind it.
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It's clear to me that some measure of the emotion and urgency around Twitter verification in broader culture is tied to the precarity and capriciousness of the creator economy. The dudes who jump in my DMs seeking verification seem intense, or even desperate, about getting verified. They can't articulate exactly how it will open doors for them, but they're convinced it will, and I'm sure sometimes that's even true.
But there's a broader sense that people's attention, and careers, and opportunities, and even to some degree their lives, are mediated by platforms that are enormously powerful while being fundamentally opaque. Abstractions like "the algorithm" are unknowable, and have millions of people grinding away at a thankless video game that is not only impossible to win, but will actively adapt to keep you from winning if you get too good at it.
And then, amidst that stress and anxiety and uncertainty, there's a signifier of status. Even better, it's a signifier that's tied to the promise of algorithmic privilege. People will take you more seriously, platforms will amplify your voice, and maybe this entire ecosystem will tilt more fairly in your favor.
Verification does have a small set of true benefits tied to it. And a larger set of perceived ones. But in reality, it doesn't do much in a literal sense for those who have had the checkmark bestowed upon them; it is far more often just a trophy representing the privilege they already had. What the blue checkmark does far more effectively than verify someone's identity, though, is to act as a symbol of the inequities that technology platforms create and persist and amplify.
- From 2016, "A Billion Dollar Gift for Twitter", a list of suggestions on how to improve the platform in order to grow the value of the company. Worth reading to see how many of these have happened in the 5 years since, especially as Twitter is a far more valuable company now.
- From 2013, "What It's Like Being Verified On Twitter"
- From 2015, "Nobody Famous", about what it's like having the social network of a celebrity on Twitter without actually being famous
- A perennial favorite from 2018, about "Unfollowing Everybody"
- And way back in 2009, being listed by Twitter as a suggested account to follow, an arbitrary decision by the company a dozen years ago that still probably accounts for almost half of the folks who follow me.