Twitter verification: give it to everyone – or kill it

Twitter can’t work out what verification is for. This came to a head today as it suspended the program that allows anyone to apply for a blue checkmark.

Verifying a white supremacist understandably drew scorn, but where does the company take blue checkmarks from here?

Consider all the things a blue checkmark means:

  • This person is who they say they are (the official reason). They might be a celebrity, high-profile journalist, or have suffered impersonation attempts on Twitter — or have just got lucky with the verification process.
  • This person is important (not an official reason, but a common perception drawn from the fact it’s hard to get verified).
  • Twitter endorses this person’s views (again, not an official reason. Because the verification decision process is hidden from view, it’s easy to think Twitter must like the people it approves for a check mark).
  • It’s a thing of value (the checkmark has the shiny glint of being a privilege thanks in no small part to the fact Twitter has removed it from people who break rules).

Twitter’s inconsistent approach to verification has led to a confused mess of interpretations.

Julian Assange added a mock verification symbol to his name on Twitter, after claiming the real checkmark symbolised ‘proximity to power.’ It shouldn’t be open to that much interpretation.

It should really be simple.

Verification can be one of two things:

  1. An editorial endorsement that says: ‘this is an interesting person worth listening to.’ Kind of like Apple employs journalists to highlight interesting apps in its App Store.
  2. A simple checkmark of authenticity. Anyone who wants one can get it quickly and easily.

It can’t be both.

Option 1 would be easy, and a quick fix. They could just rename ‘Verified’ to ‘Pick’ and then hire people to select notable voices from around Twitter. But losing a good way of knowing who was real would cause new problems with fake accounts and abuse, so this option is a non-starter.

And that’s why option 2 is the only real solution if Twitter wants verification to maintain any level of credibility.

It’s also the incredibly difficult solution:

  • What ID is acceptable?
  • How does Twitter check for forged ID?
  • How well does the system scale internationally? Types and standards of available ID vary from country to country.
  • How do you verify millions of accounts, from a practical point of view? How much of the process can be automated?
  • Do pseudonymous accounts like hrtbps, Internet of Shit, and Counternotions, that have followings and value, just get thrown in the ‘unverified’ pit with the trolls and bots? Or is there a way of verifying them too, without their authors having to reveal their identities?

I don’t have the solution to these problems but it seems to me the only clear way forward for the blue checkmark is for it to apply to every real user who wants one — or for it to be retired.

And if it was retired, maybe the alternative is a much harder line on abuse and impersonation, coupled with ‘editor’s picks’ to highlight interesting accounts in a plainly subjective way.