After a decade or so of stability and a general status quo for how things worked on Twitter, the social media company is in the midst of a massive upheaval that’s only going to get messier in the coming days, weeks and months.
What started with a 4:20 joke a few months ago ended with SpaceX and Tesla billionaire CEO Elon Musk dropping a whopping $44 billion to purchase the wildly influential but relatively small platform in October. Twitter may drive the news cycle, but it still only has a fraction of the actual active (and monetizable) users of a company like Meta.
After taking control of the company and reportedly laying off as much as half its staff (then asking a few of them back, once they realized they canned some workers with critical institutional knowledge in the slapdash culling), one of the new owner’s biggest priorities has been finding new ways to generate revenue. His antics have spooked some advertisers into pausing their spends on the service, making the losses even more pronounced fresh off the incredibly expensive deal’s close.
Musk does understand one thing about Twitter, and that’s the value of the little blue checkmark. Verification on Twitter has been a badge of honor for influencers, journalists, celebrities and newsmakers for years—and the company’s protocol for dolling it out and approving who has one has remained one of Twitter’s most nebulous mysteries for years. So Musk’s first major initiative is a retooling of Twitter’s mixed-bag paid subscription service Twitter Blue, which was originally launched to offer users expanded features like ad-free articles, the ability to upload longer videos, and most recently the long-desired ability to finally edit tweets.
Under Musk, the service is being quickly retooled (and priced-up, from an original price of $2.99 to $8 reportedly) with the key new feature of giving anyone who dishes out $8 their very own blue checkmark. But is status really status if anyone can buy it for a few bucks? The move effectively makes verification a paid feature, and Musk has noted the advantage could give paid users priority placement in responses and search, with the hope of also reducing spam and bots on the service. Presumably, the hope is that humans will pay for the service, while spam and bot content will fall to the wayside with lower visibility and engagement.
That in itself isn’t a bad idea on the surface, it’s just that this new system—at least at launch—is missing the main point of verification. Verified users under Twitter’s original system had to verify their identify, and that blue checkmark served as an authority sign that you really are speaking to that person or company. But, at least at launch, it seems the only requirement for a blue checkmark under Musk will be dishing out $8 per month, which will create a situation where if everyone can be capital-V Verified without actually being verified, then at that point no one is verified.
Having users actually verify their identity is a good idea that would certainly make a dent in hate speech, spam and abuse on the platform. But that’s not what Musk is doing, at least not at this point. This is basically just letting people pay for a checkmark, which under this system has about as much utility as a skin in Fortnite, though it could prove more useful once they presumably retool the algorithm to give paying users more weight. But at that point, is it still Twitter in the first place? Will your real-time timeline still work the same, or will unverified, non-paying accounts you follow be harder to surface and find? So many questions are still unanswered.
Allowing everyone to have a checkmark also opens the door for potential problems with impersonation, and you can expect plenty of confusion as users accustomed to simply seeing a blue checkmark and taking it at face value could be confused by the new system. We’ve seen some early instances already, as verified users have trolled Musk by changing their user names to “Elon Musk.” Musk quickly banned or suspended the offending accounts, noting they weren’t clearly defined as parodies (Kathy Griffin is one of the highest profile offenders).
If they plan on dealing with all accounts in this manner, that could work. But letting anyone buy a checkmark means there could potentially be hundreds of thousands of new “verified” accounts to monitor for misuse (and these newly verified accounts won’t go through any vetting process like existing verified users). With the company’s staff effectively gutted, that could create a whole slew of new problems when it comes to enforcing those rules.
Funnily enough, Twitter was set to introduce a new extra checkmark for some high profile accounts, which displays as a small white check with the word “Official” beside it. The new “Official” badge was reportedly to apply to government accounts, major businesses and companies, major media outlets and some public figures. But, hours after it was implemented, Musk “killed it” Wednesday morning without explanation.
Though all these changes are happening at a breakneck pace and revealed seemingly at the whims of Musk’s personal Twitter feed (and off-hand chats with famous users like Stephen King), it’s far too early to guess how it might change the way we all use Twitter. Maybe some of these changes eventually make things better by adding some level of wider verification, or maybe Musk runs this thing into the ground with all these fast and loose changes and potentially looser content moderation that could lead to even more racism and hate speech.
At that point, who knows? Perhaps we’re all using Mastodon or Bluesky a year or two from now while Twitter devolves into a juiced-up Parler or Truth Social.
The only thing we do know is that Twitter is changing in ways we can’t even understand, and the once mythical blue checkmark is soon to be just… well, a checkmark.
Trent Moore is a recovering print journalist, freelance editor and writer with bylines at lots of places. He likes to find the sweet spot where pop culture crosses over with everything else. Follow him at @trentlmoore on Twitter.