The verification system does have a practical purpose. Twitter brims with bogus or parody accounts. So when users are sifting through a list of potential usernames, it helps to have signals to help find the actual person they want to follow. (Of course, that hasn’t stopped the unverified from trying to PhotoShop blue checkmarks onto their profiles.) Since Twitter is the only one that can grant the official checkmark icon, it certifies that this person is who they say they are, and not someone posting a phony account. Yet without that blue checkmark, many still-valid accounts of high-profile and high-follower accounts are left looking like they might be fake.
Twitter hasn’t yet verified Keith Walker, a Nashville country singer with over 48,000 followers. “The biggest question I get is, ‘Is this really you?’” Walker said.
But it goes further. “Being verified doesn't just verify that you are who you say you are; it verifies that you are, by some slightly mysterious criteria, important,” says Judith Donath, who studies social networks’ effects on society at M.I.T. Media Lab. “[Twitter] keeps up interest by keeping verification relatively rare, by making the rules for being chosen opaque, and making it like an invitation-only club.”
That creates a next level: users who want but don’t have the blue checkmark had better keep working to build their Twitter brand to finally reach that In crowd. It’s a continual carrot—or, as O'Keefe puts it, “It's like the Illuminati of social media.” (As someone who's verified, I can vouch there are no secret meetings.)
Twitter has a vague set of guidelines on its website, outlining the verification process as applicable to users in “music, acting, fashion, government, politics, religion, journalism, media, sports, business and other key interest areas.” The process apparently does not take follower-count into consideration and the company says they are constantly revising the guidelines. In other words, verification can apply to anyone.
O’Keefe has had numerous agents try to fast track his verification. But he believes there’s a pretty easy way to get the blue checkmark: “Spend a lot of money on Twitter ads.” He says a Twitter representative told him that a dedicated account manager could escalate his verification request—and to get a dedicated Twitter account manager, he needed to spend $5,000 per month on ads. “I felt almost extorted in a way.” (A spokesman for Twitter said that while someone on the sales team can request “escalate[d]” verification, it’s ultimately at the discretion of a person on Twitter’s User Services team. That team’s focus is verifying “highly sought users” in “key interest areas.”)
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Within various subcultures, status is built on an intricate matrix of ladders. Climb here, climb there. Whether you want to become chief or president, get into a country club, or get the job as starting quarterback, humans create social incentives to compete and congregate—to project success, whether or not they’re actually experiencing it. When a father proudly notes, “My daughter’s a surgeon,” he’s putting a checkmark, in some form, next to her name. And icons that denote hierarchies are everywhere: Girl scouts and generals get patches to show their rank, polo shirts are festooned with telltale alligators, people slap bumper stickers with the names of universities on their cars. These emblems are often a way of saying I’m important, but they’re also a way to communicate something that’s simultaneously simpler and more profound: This is who I am. Twitter verification, then, may be totally pointless to a lot of people, and meaningless in the grand scheme of things, but it is a form of context nonetheless.