Nov 14, 2022 - Technology

Twitter's checkmark chaos

Twitter shatter

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser / Axios 

On Friday, Twitter suspended signups for the revamped subscription service it launched earlier last week, after a wave of customers used the plan's verified-checkmark feature for fraudulent pranks.

Driving the news: The company made no announcement of the change — it no longer has a comms team — but Elon Musk replied to a Twitter user's question on Saturday that signups would resume "probably end of next week."

The big picture: The $8-a-month subscription plan has been Musk's top priority since he took control of Twitter two weeks ago.

  • Giving every paid user a blue checkmark was the plan's chief innovation, replacing the existing program, which Musk called "bulls---" and "a lords & peasants system."

Yes, but: For a decade the checkmarks have signalled that an account — usually belonging to political leaders, celebrities, journalists and other public figures or brands — is who it says it is.

Before the subscription plan launched, Musk — apparently miffed by users, including comedian Kathy Griffin, who had changed their profile name and photo to match his — had declared a ban on impersonation, except when explicitly labeled as parody.

  • Twitter veterans noted that such behavior was precisely what the old-style blue checkmarks — which Twitter only granted after review — aimed to prevent, and the new plan would enable.

Indeed, the moment users got access to a blue check for $8, some altered their profiles to pretend to be big companies, public figures, and Musk himself.

  • A user claiming to be Eli Lilly tweeted that insulin was now free. The message was eventually deleted, but the company's stock took a hit anyway.
  • Others posted as Coca-Cola, Nintendo (with Mario raising a middle finger), and a variety of other brands, sports figures, politicians and celebrities.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, Twitter had turned on a new gray "official account" checkmark.

  • But within hours Musk tweeted "I just killed it....Blue check will be the great leveler."
  • On Friday some gray checks began to reappear.

Between the lines: Musk appears to be making snap decisions on whims and communicating them haphazardly both to his own teams and to Twitter users, creating a widening gyre of confusion in all directions.

Between the lines: In the cat-and-mouse game of managing user-generated content online, users will always outnumber enforcers.

  • A big platform like Twitter needs an army of moderators — but Musk has just laid off half the company.
  • Over the weekend he also cut loose contractors, reportedly by the thousands, many employed in content moderation work.

Our thought bubble: Most veterans of the content-moderation trenches figured Musk would end up in this kind of bind sooner or later — but no one expected it to happen overnight.

The bottom line: Big platforms typically roll out major changes slowly, testing them on small slices of users to learn how they react, because they can never be sure how millions of users will behave.

  • Musk took a crash approach — he reportedly told engineers to ship the new subscription plan in a week or they'd be fired. He courted chaos, and found it.
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