Yesterday gave us the grimly funny spectacle of billionaire Elon Musk haphazardly negotiating the price of a blue checkmark after millionaire author Stephen King told him to fuck off. Chief Twit Musk, fresh from sacking the company's C-suite, clearing out the board and threatening mass layoffs, must now double Twitter's annual profits just to cover interest on the debt that financed his acquisition.
Of the various things he's done to reform the site, most harmonize with Musk's reactionary political leanings. He's reportedly locked out most of the mods, for example, and alarm at racial slurs, antisemitism and general unpleasantness grows in their absence.
But it seems odd how he's presented his most obvious revenue-generating effort: paid verification. The Guardian's Alex Hern put it best:
I can't stop thinking about how bad the messaging around the blue check thing is. If it were "verification costs money, we want to roll it out to as many people as possible as part of our anti-spam feature, and tie it in to a new subscriber funded model" I'd be… fine?
Instead it's "don't you want to pay for this status symbol?" … almost perfectly calibrated to not only not sell me on the value of an $8 subscription, but make me actively not want to have the status symbol"
In short, it seems like a good idea marketed in a bad way.
Here's why he's pushing paid verification so oddly, I think: because he thinks the wrong people (media personnel of no consequence or notability) were invited en-masse to join Twitter's verified elite, and his driving interest in selling verification is to hit the "reset" button on that. His problem, as demonstrated by Stephen King's reaction, is that true celebrities will abandon the symbol once a cheap price tag collapses the idea that it signifies status. If anything, it becomes an insult to them.
Though the likelihood is that nothing good will come of anything Musk does with Twitter, there's a silver lining in it losing its centrality to news media.
Consider how the incentives of the media and right wingers have come into close alignment. For media, these incentives flow from the murky waters of necessity and are not plainly ideological (such as the need to produce lots of attention-grabbing content at a relentless pace) but lead to political outcomes (police PR officers can help with the content problem, and their crime hype is tilting the election.)
The funny thing about this alignment, between far-right goons and media folks, is that they're all trapped together on Twitter, hating each other, constantly jostling for readership and attention on the same topics. This defines the vibe of Twitter for many of those using it, heightening the sense of a sprawling entanglement between conservative provocateurs and journalists sharing their frame of reference–a deathmatch refereed, arbitrarily and absurdly, by Twitter itself.
That is what Musk's fixated on, isn't it?
Media people have to be on Twitter, and for years the "checks" went to us irrespective of our notability, fame or status–all in pursuit of getting our content for free. The verification system extended the aura of celebrity to journalists in return for constant unpaid labor. Musk putting a low-enough dollar symbol on the verification check is a way to upend whatever balance of power he imagines it created.
You certainly shouldn't assume he knows what he's doing, and the instant backlash from real celebrities suggests he doesn't. You can't blame Twitter culture for the aligned incentives of media and reactionaries, either–daily newspapers and cable news are the big culprits. Here, then, is an enemy making mistakes–and being constantly interrupted.
Correction: Twitter must increase profits, not revenue, to cover interest payments on debt.