Breaking Blue: The Evolving Legacy of Twitter VerificationImage via Christopher Furlong/Getty Images Tech Features Twitter
For the brunt of its existence, things change came slowly for social media platform Twitter, whether it be policy changes or the details around the tried and true blue checkmark. Almost too slowly, in a lot of cases. But since Elon Musk bought and took over the service last year, the company is living up to the old adage of moving fast and breaking things. With a heavy emphasis on breaking things.
One of the most seismic and consequential changes the Musk regime has made since taking the reins of Twitter is rethinking the function of the service’s iconic blue checkmark. The blue check has been a point of pride, status, contention and confusion for more than a decade since it was created by the original Twitter team. Originally meant as a signifier that a user was “verified” as far as their identity and “notable” by often vague definition, the service was reserved largely for celebrities, journalists and brands as a way to avoid impersonation and misinformation.
But earlier this year, Musk decided to scrap it all and start (almost) fresh. Instead of representing that a user has been legitimately verified (typically through an application process and by submitting a photo ID to Twitter’s team), the blue checkmark can now be purchased for $8 per month by anyone as part of Twitter’s paid Twitter Blue service. To say it’s been a disaster would be an understatement. The rollout has been halting and messy, rife with impersonation and pranks (with some, including a checkmarked account claiming to be pharmaceutical firm Eli Lilly, briefly hitting the company’s stock price when a prankster using the company’s name claimed “insulin is free now”).
Nowadays, most blue checkmarks belong to those who have opted to pay $8 per month to sign up for Twitter Blue, including a mix of Musk fanatics, some power users, and increasingly supporters of right-wing politics and politicians (as Musk himself has become a bit of an icon among the right with his tweets and comments in recent years). Where a blue check used to mean a tweet was likely legitimate reporting or a useful comment, they’re now typically trolls, hate speech proliferators or crypto scams clogging up the top of most comment threads (because now, priority placement is given to Blue subscribers).
To make things even more confusing, Musk has since removed “legacy” verified checkmarks on almost all accounts that were verified under Twitter’s old leadership, including thousands of journalists, brands and celebrities. That rollout has also been rough, with Musk still providing some verified checkmarks for massively popular accounts with more than one million followers, which has muddied the messaging even further. He’s also launched a scheme to try and push companies into new, far more expensive, differently-colored checkmarks they can purchase for accounts and associated employees.
It can be a lot to digest, but more than anything, it’s arguably most impressive how in just a year Musk has turned an established status symbol into something frequently mocked with memes and jokes among Twitter’s former blue checkmarks (many of which are now proudly unverified).
But where did it all start? What’s the origin, and evolution, of the blue checkmark?
Twitter launched in 2006 as a plucky upstart social media and micro-blogging service that also utilized SMS messaging. It gradually became more popular over the next few years, with users flocking to the service when looking for — and sharing — immediate reactions around world events, from the Arab Spring to Super Bowl halftime shows.
As for verified accounts, that launched as a beta feature in 2009, after Twitter was sued by Tony La Russa, the St. Louis Cardinals manager, after he was impersonated on the social network. Though the lawsuit was obviously a factor, reporting at the time notes popular celebrities were also putting pressure on Twitter’s leadership to provide some type of protection against impersonation, so the timing just worked out.
Though the concept was now established, actually getting verified proved a bit more of a nebulous process. In the early days, Twitter would essentially verify popular and famous accounts on a case-by-case basis, which made the mythical blue checkmark all the more desirable. It wasn’t something just anyone could get, and even if you were famous, there was no clear way to actually obtain one.
There are old rumors and tales of folks paying Twitter employees under the table for verification and jockeying Silicon Valley contacts to get the right person’s attention at the company, but the opaque nature of getting verified remained the same a few years after the feature was rolled out.
In 2016, Twitter made the process a bit more transparent, allowing users who think they should be verified to apply for verification. But after being swamped with requests, later that year Twitter closed applications and reverted back to its old, internal system of verifying accounts as they deemed necessary. Twitter opened things back up in 2020 with a new verification request process, which was slightly less opaque than before, providing some criteria (like an associated Wikipedia page, etc.) for what they’d be looking at to determine if an account is notable and should be verified.
If you’re making a timeline in your head, you’ll realize that the 2020 application process drew us closer to the present, and things remained relatively the same until Musk’s drawn-out purchase of Twitter in 2022. The rest is (recent) history. Musk removed the actual verification requirement from being a verified account and made it pay-to-play instead (under Musk’s Twitter Blue, users do not have to provide ID to be “verified,” only have a credit card on file to be billed the $8 monthly fee). He then stripped verification from accounts that had actually been verified in the past, meaning all a blue checkmark means now is that you’re willing to pay for the Twitter’s free services along with a few feature perks, including juiced-up placement and an edit button. As for the hope of converting legacy verified users into paying Blue subscribers, well, that hasn’t really panned out. When the checkmark lost its original meaning, not many folks were keen to pay for it.
By reframing the entire Twitter Blue service around the check, Musk clearly saw the value in the iconography of the blue checkmark — yet he simply doesn’t realize what made it valuable in the first place or how to capitalize on it. The blue checkmark was a status symbol because not everyone had one, and when one popped up in your feed, you knew the tweet was from someone who was notable and legitimate. Had Musk simply continued that verification process with his revamped version and open it to a wider group of users, the blue check would still hold some verification value.
But now? There’s no doubt a blue checkmark is still a status symbol — just not the one Musk might’ve hoped it would be.
Trent Moore is a recovering print journalist, and 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.