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31 October 2022

Charging Twitter users for blue ticks would be a disaster

Elon Musk’s latest brainwave risks alienating the users Twitter depends on and would expose it to lawsuits.

Let us start with a confession: I have a blue tick on Twitter (actually the verified badge is a white tick on a blue background, but still). I have, in fact, had a blue tick for more than a decade. I have forgotten what it is like to live without one.

So far as I can recall, I didn’t get verified by a journalistic outlet I worked for, or for any fame I had. Someone had been impersonating me on Twitter. My real handle is @jamesrbuk; they used @jamesbruk and an identical picture and bio, and then sent abusive messages to my friends. After suspending the impostor Twitter offered me the hallowed tick.

This is, in fact, the purpose for which the verified mark was created. It came out of a lawsuit against Twitter in 2009, when the company faced a legal case for damage to someone’s reputation for a Twitter account impersonating them. The mark was a way for Twitter to protect itself and its users against such instances in the future.

The blue tick has strayed far from that purpose and become something of an online status symbol – if one of dubious merit. Yet its origins should mean that red flags start flying in response to any plan to make it something that can be charged for (the Verge has reported that Twitter’s new owner, Elon Musk, is considering making users pay up to $20 a month to keep it). Almost no financial model that combines status with verification can end well.

The first option is that verification remains for a particular cadre of “notable” users, with a threshold roughly similar to where it is set now. As it stands, around 300,000 accounts – less than 0.2 per cent of Twitter’s active users – are verified, and accounts have to meet a set of standards to be eligible for this.

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If you keep the eligibility to keep your blue tick tight but require users to pay for it many simply won’t bother, but even if a sizeable fraction did, the revenue is negligible. If as many as one in five current blue ticks paid $20 a month that would raise just under $15 million a year for Twitter. That might sound like decent money, but Twitter’s current revenues (mostly from advertising) are $5 billion a year. Musk’s apparent plan would generate about 30 hours’ worth of annual revenue.

The downsides would be considerable. Without a free way for notable accounts to confirm they were real, it would be easier for fake accounts posing as banks, government agencies or notable people to fool innocent users and spread fake news – opening Twitter up to far more moderation (itself very costly) and to lawsuits (also costly).

One way to increase the revenue potential would be to open up verification to a much bigger pool of users, but while the revenue could be higher the risks are higher too. If the criteria for checking identity are dropped, verification could become a spammer or a hacker’s paradise.

All of this is mere detail, though, compared with the bigger problem: the Twitter Elon Musk has inherited is one that is failing to engage its most active users. These are people defined by Twitter as posting a mere three to four times a week and the network is losing them already. This is a terrible time to ask people for money.

When it comes to its most active users, generally those who are verified, Twitter is useless for monetisation for creators: it has yet to build a Patreon- or Substack-type product and doesn’t share advertising revenue. Having tens of thousands of followers on YouTube or Instagram makes you an income. Having tens of thousands of followers on Twitter makes you a target.

Musk-era Twitter risks pissing off the users it depends on, making its service worse, and damaging already shaky advertiser confidence around brand safety and image – for a scheme that will raise paltry revenue. But Elon Musk being Elon Musk, he may well do it anyway.

As for me, Musk is welcome to my tick. I’m fond of it, I’ve forgotten what it’s like not to have one, but I don’t think it measurably changes my online experience, which is what it is because of my follower count more than anything else. Musk can come and take my tick from my warm, living hands. Let’s see how the other half lives.

[See also: Whatever Mastodon is, it won’t replace Twitter]  

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