“I think the way brands look at it has changed,” Lake said. “It’s not as essential. They look for different qualities in influencers other than if they’re verified. Verification is a personal vanity metric at the end of the day.” She points to someone like Helena Glazer Hodne, known online as Brooklyn Blonde, as a prime example of a hyper-successful influencer who consistently nabs quality brand deals without having a check mark.
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All this has led to a glut of mid-tier celebrities, sports stars, and moderately known people across a wide span of industries getting blue check marks on Instagram and Twitter—while people with as many, if not more, followers don’t have them. Verification scams, like the one Hawley happened upon, are so common because users constantly encounter seemingly nonfamous people with check marks. It’s easy to assume that if this many unremarkable people have achieved verification, it must be something you can buy. “How do people get verified cuz I [swear to God] they’re just givin em out to randos so they feel better about themselves,” one person tweeted.
Some people have suggested incremental changes to the verification process. Mahzad Babayan, the director of talent at Fullscreen, an entertainment company that works with social-media stars, told me that perhaps establishing a review process is in order. “If we’re looking at oversaturation on the platform, they probably need to implement something like a review process,” she said. “It’s like having a job. Don’t you get reviews?” Niv Dror, a venture capitalist, told me that the verification team should offer customer support for those seeking it. “They should have a human you can contact,” Dror said.
But these stopgap measures still perpetuate a broken system and won’t ultimately eliminate abusers like the ones Hawley encountered. Rather than have a binary system where users are either check-marked or not—and the lucky few get access to special perks that all users would likely appreciate—Twitter, Instagram, and the like should rebuild the whole system and adopt new features to meet users’ needs. “When I ask friends how they get verified, nine times out of 10 they say they know a guy,” says Siqi Chen, the chief product officer of Sandbox VR. “It seems to be a predictable symptom of the fact that it takes knowing someone to get verified. But when Instagram and Twitter rely on personal relationships it opens the opportunity for scamming. Anyone can say ‘I know someone at Insta who can get you verified,’ and there’s no way to prove or disprove that.”
One key way check marks function is as a badge of authenticity. If you’re seeking out clothing from a specific brand, or looking to see if a profile is a specific account and not an impersonator, a verified badge comes in handy. But verified badges are a poor way to deliver this information to users. Twitter and Instagram could, for instance, simply allow any user to link their offline identity or business to their profile. Eugene Wei, a former product head at Flipboard and Hulu, told me that making such a change is key for Instagram as the company moves further into e-commerce. He likens it to when Amazon rolled out verified buyer and seller badges. “You may be like, ‘Hey, is this a legit retailer that I should trust?’” he said. “Having a different system that’s more meaningful and not using a blue check, which is really broad and meaningless, makes sense.”