Blue Check Marks Were Always Shameless

Twitter verification was first a tool for vanity.

A shattered mirror with a blue checkmark on it
Illustration by Matt Chase / The Atlantic. Source: Getty.

Many years ago, when picking up my teenage daughter from an outdoor mall, I found myself surrounded by her friends. “You’re verified,” one of them said, gushing. At first I thought this was some new youth slang term for “cool” or even “uncool.” But alas, she was referring to Twitter. I had a blue check on the service. That kind of verified.

My kid’s friends would have found it impressive to be verified because actual famous people, such as Kim Kardashian and the fictional mascot of the Wendy’s burger chain, were verified. I was verified because I had an email address. On social media, as in reality television, accomplishment is less important than occupying the subject position of the accomplished. The verified badge signaled the second.

After Elon Musk bought Twitter for $40 bajillion last year, he effectively nuked that signal by selling the badges as a part of Twitter Blue, his new Elon-fealty subscription. In this new system, a badge signaled that a user had spent $8 that month, rather than that they were the recent-college-graduate operator of a fast-food-restaurant account, or that they had an email address. The previous badges—or the “real” ones, if you prefer—had indicated that an account holder was “notable,” in Twitter’s words. Now they got served with a snide codicil: “This is a legacy verified account. It may or may not be notable.” But the legacy blue checks persisted, coexisting tenuously alongside the bought ones.

Until soon, maybe. Yesterday evening, @verified, the verified account for Twitter Verified, announced that the company would start “winding down” the legacy program as of April 1, ousting maybe-notable people such as me from the ranks of the positionally accomplished and replacing us with individuals willing to pay Elon Musk for the privilege.

Response to the announcement has included the predictable lamentations and pearl-clutching of the too-online: Imposters will proliferate! They will. When Twitter first launched the fealty verification plan in November, an enterprising culture jammer made a fake account for Eli Lilly and posted that the multinational pharmaceutical company would start giving insulin away. The prank caused the company’s stock to drop by 4 percent or so—and may have influenced its decision to drop the actual price of insulin to $35 a month. What will happen when such impersonations are made even easier? Something bad, probably.

It's exhausting to litigate the safety of life online, because online life is not safe. We should know this by now. Awful things happen on the internet. Misinformation rules because content, disguised as information, spreads so easily. There are few consequences for using the internet for lies or abuse. Much of the abuse is sexist or racist or both or both and worse. All of this is true. Please don’t tweet from your Twitter account that I failed to note this truth.

But verified accounts were never innocent either. Celebrities and politicians and hamburger restaurants got verified because they were public figures. Media professionals, game developers, DJs, thirst-trap models, and other maybe-notables got verified because they were public figures on the internet. Some people, including journalists like me, had justified concerns about securing our identities. But even as that risk was (and is) real, other truths circled in its orbit.

Chief among these: Verification created two classes of online persons, the maybe-notable and the rabble. As my daughter’s friends intuited, verification replaced accomplishment, trustworthiness, and other properties that previously formed the foundation of notability with a badge that merely symbolized it. You can call this kind of notability “internet fame” if you want, but imagine if a real celebrity needed a badge to be recognized as such. Someone famous is famous because they’re famous, not because they flashed a badge at you like a fame cop.

Then verification fused with the mega-scale amplification of Twitter to spread the simulation of renown. Journalism has never been a great way to get wealthy or famous, but Twitter—more than any other social network—gave journalists, writers, and media personalities an opportunity to build a personal following while getting paid as an employee. Outlets deemed sufficiently valid had semi-automated processes for verifying all of their writers (as was true for The Atlantic, The New York Times, and, so far as I can tell, Garden & Gun). I can’t deny that verification has helped prevent some duplicity and its consequences. But I also can’t deny that verification inflated the vanity of many of us who got verified.

Hooks for this use of verification have long been built right into the service. When I look at my followers on Twitter, the software gives me a separate interface to see all of my verified followers. The full list is made up of random people such as you or my wife, whereas the “Verified” tab shows more important citizens such as video producers, podcast hosts, and speaker-author-guru-moms. (To be honest, I don’t even know whether hoi polloi Twitter users have access to this tab, or if it’s only for the blue checks like myself, the ones who really deserve it.)

Perhaps being extant and semipopular is sufficient reason to earn a badge that denotes “being extant and semipopular.” But we all should have been more circumspect about the vainglory of blue-checkdom. It is shameful and embarrassing to pay Elon Musk a few bucks for a fake mark of importance. But it was equally shameful and embarrassing to take one for free and pretend that it ever meant something.