Friday 23 February 2018

Twitter now lets anyone get a verified 'blue tick'. But there's a catch...

'Ghostbusters' actress Leslie Jones quit Twitter after online criticisms by some of its users
'Ghostbusters' actress Leslie Jones quit Twitter after online criticisms by some of its users

Do you ever wish you had a Twitter 'blue tick' of verification? Well, now you can. As of today, Twitter is accepting applications for the blue tick from anyone.

You just fill out an online form, giving Twitter some verifiable personal contact details. It's aimed at companies and associations as much as individuals.

There's a catch, though: you have to be a person of "public interest". That means you have to pitch Twitter as to your importance.

"We'll ask you to tell us why we should verify an account," says Twitter's application guidance. "If the account represents a person, we want to understand their impact in their field."

So if you're not someone who can show they have made an "impact", don't bother applying. You're not in the same league as our 187,000 verified people, pal.

"We approve account types maintained by users in music, acting, fashion, government, politics, religion, journalism, media, sports, business, and other key interest areas," Twitter's advice continues.

This is all pretty daft. Why can't anyone be 'verified'? Where is the business strategy in not giving 'verified' status to anyone who can produce a valid contact number and address?

Do people really want to be judged as less important than a few celebrities and journalists?

(Full disclosure: I have had a 'verified' Twitter account for a couple of years, as hundreds of Irish journalists have, so maybe I should just shut up and enjoy the relative elevation.)

In the cold light of business performance, it makes no sense. Twitter's user numbers have stagnated and may even now be falling, just as Snapchat, Facebook and others are soaring. Its 'verified' strategy has not helped at all: it possibly makes the 310 million monthly users who aren't verified feel slightly disposable.

And it arguably contributes to another problem Twitter has: harassment. Armed with anonymity or obscurity, ordinary people let darker, more vulgar sides of themselves out for a gallop.

This week, one of the cast of the new 'Ghostbusters' film, Leslie Jones, was harassed off Twitter largely for being the wrong sex to star in a remake of the movie. While one of the ringleaders was the (verified, now suspended) right-wing commentator Milo Yiannopoulos, most of the barrage came from semi-anonymous accounts who clearly felt little compunction about spewing vitriol Jones's way.

If a greater number of those accounts had been verified (attached to valid phone numbers, addresses and other personal details), it's very unlikely that the venom would have been quite as strong. People simply behave better when they're easily traceable. On top of this, 'verified' users have more controls available to them to screen or block nasty interlocutors.

So why does Twitter persist with the idea that some users deserve special status over others?

I recently had the chance to ask the company's newly-chosen Ireland MD, Mark Little, about the 'verified' issue and about the company's attitude to dealing with harassment.

"Obviously we are going to support users to help them on the platform," he said. "But we are about freedom of expression, too. We're not going to be a censor. We're not going to tell you what you should listen to. Our focus is on is building tools that allow you to have the choice of who you listen to. One of the great things about Twitter that I always loved is that while I may have an opinion, I'm never more than a second away from hearing someone who has a different opinion.

"It's a lot to do with how you use it and how we can educate society to look beyond the bubble."

(I should say that we spoke about this issue two weeks before the Leslie Jones harassment case or Twitter's announcement over loosening its 'verified' user policy.

Little's comments were therefore in response to a general question on the issues.)

While this makes sense in its own right, it doesn't get at why Twitter is obsessed with its 'verified' stratification, something its faster-growing rivals just don't bother with. The best answer may be that Twitter still sees itself as a live news service above all else. And that in this context, an elite tier of verified users and accounts is the best way to cut through noise.

In one way, this is a absolutely right: Twitter incontrovertibly owns live news (and events) in a manner that other networks simply do not. For example, it was the only truly live place to follow the recent Nice terror attack as it unfolded.

And Twitter was even more compelling during the attempted coup in Turkey: no TV or online rival came close.

But surely opening up its 'verified' status to more than 1pc of its (possibly shrinking) user base would not threaten any of these core competencies?

Would you use the service less or more if the person next to you was 'verified'? I'm betting it wouldn't be less.

Twitter's critics often overdo it when predicting doomsday scenarios for the service. But the company does need to start thinking a little differently. It's time to open up the 'verified' bubble.

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