Participation and Trust

A Working History of the Verified Internet

Part one: Studying a moving target

Part one: Studying a moving target

March 13, 2024

Back in 2021, I received a grant from the Internet Society Foundation to study a topic I was calling “platform mediation and the verified internet.” I had become interested in this topic a few years earlier, spurred on by my dissertation work, which looked at how platform companies were using content moderation (and other strategies like demonetization) to reconcile the needs of their various users — often to the benefit of some, and at the expense of others. Platforms, as I discovered in work I began with Data & Society back in 2015, had become important gatekeepers in the digital era. But it was not necessarily only algorithms that were doing the work of negotiating power and potential over social media. Despite gesturing at horizontal networks and participatory culture, platforms themselves were actively structuring their relationships to their users. One of the many tools they were using to do so, I discovered, was verification. 

But you probably knew that: The verified badge — that blue, gray, green, or (insert color here) checkmark — is one of the few symbols of stratification on the internet that is visible to us, the user. 

A lot has happened with the verified badge since I began this project; so much that the badge now has an entirely different meaning to most of us. Much of this shift was sparked by Elon Musk’s chaotic takeover of Twitter in October 2022. On October 30, two days after completing his acquisition of the company, Musk tweeted that the platform’s free verified badge, known as the “blue check,” was being “revamped” to become a paid feature of Twitter’s existing subscription product, Twitter Blue. This did not go over well. By the end of that day, in a public negotiation with best-selling author and prolific tweeter Stephen King, Musk had lowered the price from the originally announced $19 a month to $7.99. For this price, he promised, any Twitter user could buy a blue checkmark, “just like the celebrities, politicians, and companies you already follow.”

Doing research on the internet often means studying a moving target. Still, I was unprepared for how quickly my research questions would shift over the course of that one day. When Twitter launched the new pay-per-badge feature on November 5, there was a rapid increase in impersonations. Not only was getting a blue check as simple as signing up for a Twitter Blue subscription, but users could actually change their names on the site, allowing them to take on the identity (outwardly at least) of those blue-checked celebrities, politicians, and companies Twitter referred to in its marketing of the product. Predictably, chaos ensued: Twitter accounts with blue checkmarks posed as companies like Eli Lilly, McDonalds, Nintendo, and American Girl. Musk’s own car company, Tesla, was mocked with a newly blue-checked @TeslaofAmerica, which tweeted “Our cars do not respect school zone limits. [Expletive] them kids.” 

Over the next several months, Musk and his (shrinking) team continued to make changes to the verified badge. By November 8, a gray checkmark suddenly appeared — and disappeared just as quickly (Musk quietly killed the feature, deeming it an “aesthetic nightmare”). By November 11, it was reinstated for some accounts as a protection against “impersonation and trolls.” As of December 2022, this tiered badge system was expanded, with new colors (gold for business), and new categories (gray for government, political parties, media houses, and brands). As the symbol(s) began to change, it was clear that users’ associations with them were changing as well. Blue checks, once a coveted signifier on the site, now existed in a liminal state, suspended between what they had once meant — status — and what they now indicated: troll.

But what exactly had the blue check meant before this transformation? When I began my research, which looked at the relationship between different user groups (journalists, experts, influencers, brands) and this symbol, I assumed the blue check existed as a mostly stable signifier. In interviews, I asked how my subjects had gone about getting their blue check, and what types of information and evidence they had to provide to prove they were not only who they said they were, but were “notable” or served the “public interest” (as was often part of the criteria to receive a badge, depending on the company). What I found in these interviews, which were unfolding as Musk eroded the system as these people knew it, was that the meaning of the blue check had never really been stable for anyone. As I observed the emotions of my interview subjects as they lost their badges — emotions that included everything from grief, to humor, indifference, dissonance, and unexpected depression — I began to realize that the blue check had always meant both nothing and everything. And that made all of us very uncomfortable if we thought too hard about it.

There’s a reason for that discomfort. In my (ongoing) analysis of how various blue/green/gray checks have been used across fifteen different companies (not just Twitter) over the last fifteen years, I’ve found that the verified badge has always functioned as a kind of compromise. It has been a way to reconcile the top-down and bottom-up visions of the internet, and to preserve legacy institutions and translate their status online. It was also, particularly during intense periods such as the Black Lives Matter uprisings following the murder of George Floyd, a way to expand our collective idea of who counts as an authority, expert, or influencer. But, though it is clear how a diverse array of people used the verified badge to gain or maintain their status in online spaces, it is less clear how platforms used these badges to reach into existing institutions (celebrity, government, and academia) to gain influence for themselves. 

Beyond the badge, the issue of verification on the internet is becoming one we all need to think about. A slew of new and proposed bills will necessitate some form of verification online from all of us. Age verification bills require that internet companies be able to distinguish between users who are above or below a particular age (18 or 13, depending on the bill): At the federal level, the Kids Online Safety Act has secured enough support to pass the Senate, and may be the first significant tech legislation to pass in decades. Though the bill does not require age gating or age verification, this bill and others passed in states such as Utah and Arkansas necessitate that platforms be able to verify the ages of users as a way to enforce laws that, among other things, give parents more control over their children’s online accounts. Critics have pointed out that many of these bills (particularly in the cases of anti-pornography bills passed in Utah, North Carolina, and Texas) will actually require age verification for adults, which will involve platforms, app stores, or other third-party services collecting government IDs or biometric face data from their users. Seen through the history of the verified badge, platforms have been doing this work for a portion of their users for some time: Tinder used anti-catfishing technologies to verify users in 2020, and LinkedIn is currently using verification powered by CLEAR.

How verification will impact the future of the internet is still unfolding. In the meantime, we can learn from the past. This is the first piece in a series on what I am calling a “working history” of the verified badge: an exploration of the role the badge has played in several critical periods of platform history. This work separates the verified badge into several eras, and I will use it as a way to revisit key periods in internet history, exploring the real names/nymwars debate of the mid-2000s, the celebrity wars (2009–2012), the civic tech era of 2010s, and concerns about misinformation that we are still grappling with today (including how to separate “better” information from “worse,” particularly during public crises like Covid-19). By its very nature, parts of this history will be unabridged or unfinished. Since the internet is actually not forever, my goal is not only to share some of what I have learned over my years of research, but to invite your contributions, interpretations, and anecdotes about how identity, notability, and authentication has unfolded online (and off).

My research is ongoing: If you worked on the verified badge, or just received and lost a verified badge (particularly those who have worked in government, in media, as an expert during Covid-19, or as an influencer), I would appreciate interviewing you for this project. Full anonymity can be granted. I can be reached at [email protected]