Thoughts on Twitter Verification

Do you trust a tweet? Well, here’s what’s in one:

  • a display name, the “human readable” name. Historically, this has been freeform text. I’ve always used my true name, Ken Kocienda. Others are more creative and change their display name often.
  • an avatar, an image. Again, a freeform field. Use a portrait, a logo, whatever. Another chance to express yourself.
  • an account name, the @handle. This doesn’t change. It’s unique in the Twitter namespace. Set it once at account-creation time, and that’s it. Even so, it’s also freeform. In general, you can claim whatever name you want—as long as nobody else has it already.
  • the account bio, a click away in all clients I know about. Another freeform field.
  • Finally… the text of the tweet, in 280 characters or less.

A tweet also might have a blue checkmark. The presence of this verification badge, or lack of it, is one more piece of information to consider when reading a tweet and deciding whether to trust it.

So once more, using this information, do you trust a tweet? For some accounts I follow, like @Popehat, the avatar has been as much a sign that the account was the real thing, especially since Ken White (the man usually behind the tweets) often has been in the habit of humorously changing his display name to “ReflectTheLatestLegalSillinessHat”. The cleverness of the display name du jour was also a sign the tweet was genuine.

Although the now-retired verification process Twitter used was never made completely clear or transparent, the system sorta worked. For myself, I always looked to the blue checkmark as a signal that the account was who or what it purported to be—and therefore the tweets were too. Tweets with blue checkmarks carried more trust along with them.

To some extent, this also means that I trusted Twitter to perform the verification. I never applied for verification under the old system myself, but I did read the page to see what was required to submit a verification request. As I recall, an organization needed to prove it was indeed that organization (perhaps with legal documents?). Presumably, a government official would need to do much the same. A journalist would need to provide press credentials of some sort. An otherwise “notable” individual would need to make a case for actual notability by pointing to wikipedia pages, google links to articles in reputable publications, etc. It’s very likely that I don’t have all the details right, but it doesn’t much matter. The point is that Twitter gathered and vetted information to verify that accounts were owned by someone or some organization who was, in fact, who they said they were. This is a key. It was the account that was verified, not the display name, or the avatar, or the bio, or the text of the tweets. The account can’t be changed. Up until now, with the previous verification scheme, all the other fields could be altered by the account holder on a whim.

This seems like a shaky foundation for verification, but I can’t remember a case in the past where a checkmark was given incorrectly (in that the account was a fake), and while I heard of many instances where someone applied for verification but was denied (for reasons that nobody outside Twitter could fully understand), the blue checkmarks kinda functioned as intended, even with Popehat-style shifting display names, changeable avatars and bios, and the rest. I guess we came to trust Twitter to get it right enough when doling out the blue checkmarks.

Does the recent ownership change affect the trust question? Maybe it does. For sure, paying $8 for a blue checkmark without any verification process was never (ever!) a good idea. Just ask Eli Lilly.

On November 25, there came news that there will be three different colors of verification badges, with blue check marks for people, gold for companies, and gray for governments. I don’t know what this accomplishes. Take the example of the 45th President of the United States. He was, and remains, a notable person. He’s also the head of a company (and technically, probably several). He also was a government official. Does that mean that any future famous business-owning government official will have a row of badges? This seems like a recipe for confusion—or perhaps clutter—rather than clarity. If the display name is locked together with the account account name as part of the verification process, this could help to build trust that a tweet is being made from a knowable source. Will avatars and bios be locked too?

And what does paying have to do with it? I get that Twitter needs to make money to keep the servers humming and pay the employees who remain, but does a one-time check of claims and credentials warrant paying $8 per month in perpetuity? Will paying boost tweets in the algorithms? Is this system really more of a subscription with verification as a perk? Will this help people trust tweets?

I guess we’ll see.

Ken Kocienda @kocienda