verification badge or digital status symbol?

Last week, Twitter launched a new pay-per-check system. The blue checkmark for identity verification, once reserved for notables and institutions, is now available to everyone. Since the update was first announced, the price has changed and the details of the verification process are uncertain at best. The current state of affairs is captured in a tweet from Elon Musk, the company’s new owner: “Please note that Twitter will do a lot of stupid things in the coming months. We will keep what works and change what doesn’t. does not work.”

As it stands, the new program is part of an update to “Twitter Blue”, the social media platform’s premium subscription service. In addition to the blue tick, anyone willing to pay the fee — $7.99 per month — will also have early access to new features, such as the ability to edit tweets. At the moment, this is only being rolled out in certain geographies. Twitter says the changes are part of a verification overhaul driven by a desire to curtail untrustworthy fake accounts.

So far, so good. Since the launch of the new system, the platform has been plagued by fake accounts, many of which sport the blue check mark that once signified account authenticity. For example, there was a fake account of George W Bush, tweeting that “I miss killing Iraqis”, to which a fake Tony Blair replied, “Same tbh”. Similarly, a fraudulent Nintendo Account posted a photo of the game character Mario making an obscene hand gesture.

Twitter derives most of its revenue from advertising. So if brands are discredited, it will be bad for business. As of this writing, Twitter has, at least temporarily, suspended the new blue check mark system amid a surge of people impersonating notable brands and individuals.

Overlooking the chaos of Twitter’s free blue tick, the fact that people will pay to verify their identity reflects our changing attitude towards technology. In the early days of Internet chat rooms, the forerunners of social media platforms, almost no one used their real name. Service providers have actively discouraged users from disclosing too much personal information. Anonymity and pseudonymity (false names) were norms on the Internet.

Today, many people yearn for hyper-authenticity, for real-time sharing of the most intimate and traditionally private details of their daily lives. And while most of us aren’t serial over-disclosurers or online exhibitionists, we’ve become much more willing to share aspects of our identities. For example, many of us share our latest awards (LinkedIn) or our opinions (Twitter) or what we are about to eat for lunch (Instagram).

In addition to being okay with projecting our true identities online, we are also increasingly required to verify that we are who we say we are. Web services actively and repeatedly encourage us to share additional verification information with them. For example, a courier may ask for our mobile phone number to help us regain access to accounts if we forget our password.

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This need for online verification and protection of our digital identity will only intensify as our daily tasks and social transactions move online. Apple, Microsoft, Google and other tech giants have already pledged to use more biometrics – Face and Touch ID – to access online accounts. Ultimately, this move is designed to eliminate time-consuming passwords, which are hackable, shareable, and forgettable.

The need for verifiable identities will increase with the expansion of the Internet. The next important phase in the evolution of the Internet is called the metaverse. This term first appears in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel, Snowfall. The author uses the word to describe a persistent virtual world, successor to the Internet, populated by millions of people in digital avatar form. Stephenson’s virtual reality world includes places of work, rest and play where people deliberately interact with each other.

While the details have yet to be fully agreed and ironed out, the emerging metaverse looks a lot like Stephenson’s vision. This computerized universe is widely envisioned as an immersive 3D digital ecosystem, a network of endless, interconnected virtual worlds. In his book, The Metaverse: And How It Will Revolutionize EverythingMatthew Ball describes it as “a parallel plane of existence for millions, if not billions of people, that sits atop our digital and physical economies.”

Today, we are “on” the Internet. Tomorrow we will be “in” the metaverse. The need for verifiable identification in such a digital ecosystem will parallel the need for passports, social security numbers and national identity cards in the physical ecosystem.

Twitter’s blue tick system seems to have some teething problems. However, rigorous and robust identity verification will eventually become a prerequisite for participation in many areas of online life. I also suspect a lot of people want, or wanted, Twitter’s blue checkmark as a status symbol, the digital equivalent of a branded t-shirt. The blue tick, after all, implies that you are worthy of impersonation. The fact that we are willing to spend money on our digital identities, enriching them with digital status symbols, also aligns with future economic visions of the metaverse. As it is offline, so will it be on the web.

Posted: November 15, 2022, 09:00 AM

James V. Hayes