The (Happy) Path Forward for Twitter Blue
What Elon Musk might do next after last week’s messy subscription rollout, and why the reports of Twitter’s death are greatly exaggerated
If you’ve spent any time on Twitter lately, you may have the impression that the platform is experiencing a rapid demise. It feels like there have been a near infinite number of tweets, blog posts, and op-eds in major publications over the past week declaring the end of the social media platform. Many are criticizing Elon Musk’s rollout of a new version of Twitter Blue, a subscription offering that gives users the ability to pay $8 per month to be verified, which Musk claims will have the second-order effect of eliminating spam and bots. I won’t re-cap the rollout here, but you can find many other blogs and Twitter threads on the topic with a quick search.
While it seems that the internet has unanimously declared Elon’s Twitter Blue strategy (and rollout) as failed, I have a slightly more nuanced take. In fact, it feels like I may be one of the few people on the planet who think that it was (and still may be) a very good strategy, albeit with very poor — yet recoverable — execution thus far. But how can it be recovered? Before I get into that, some quick additional context.
The New Twitter Blue
Musk has stated that the strategic purposes of the new Twitter Blue are to drive meaningful non-ads based revenue for the business and also eliminate spam and bots. The thinking for the latter is that by getting users to pay for a subscription service with a credit card, they can be considered verified as humans, which should earn them both a visual status confirming them as such, plus increased distribution for their tweets.
Verification tactic aside, I personally think widespread, actual verification of humans would be powerful for Twitter, and likely go very far at eliminating bots and spam and even a lot of abuse. And despite what’s transpired over the past week, I believe that this elimination of abuse via human verification was (and may still be) Musk’s plan. Especially if actual verification (or what I will call “human verification”) is also linked to distribution — a powerful incentive — as Musk said it will be.
However, in my opinion, the problem with the rollout thus far is that he used an existing feature (the previous verification system, which I will refer to as “blue check verification”) that people have come to equate with status. And therefore, users are not equating the new feature with human verification, even though that is what Musk has signaled he wants them to equate it with. So, regardless of the intent of the system, there has instead been confusion. Additionally, the rollout doesn’t enable non-paying users to be verified, which risks stifling free speech for users who can’t afford to pay.
What Musk’s plan might be moving forward
As crazy as this may sound to some, all of this seems fixable. It will be a messy cleanup, but it’s completely possible. There have been countless examples over the past few decades of messy rollouts that went on to be corrected and ultimately highly successful.
Below I’ve shared what I believe would have potentially been a more effective rollout, and perhaps it can still be implemented moving forward.
Step 1: Create a new Human Verification badge
First, I’d come up with a new type of human verification badge. I think it’s important to not conflate the existing status-oriented blue check with a new human verification badge. As users have made clear over the past week, there is simply too much association between the current blue check verification and status. Plus, the exact meaning of previous blue checks is still unclear: in fact, many users do equate it with human verification. As we all saw shortly after the Twitter Blue rollout, many trolls were able to easily spoof a critical mass of users with fake accounts pretending to be George W. Bush, OJ Simpson, among others. There is simply too much baggage associated with the blue check. Thus, a new badge is needed to wipe the slate clean and indicate whether or not a user has been verified as a human in this new version of Twitter Blue.
Step 2: Implement an actual human verification system
Next, I’d come up with a way of actually verifying that a user is the human they claim to be beyond simply linking human verification to a credit card payment. In Musk’s defense, I do believe credit card payment is a decent verification system, and I also probably would have attempted this as a first pass, as well. Credit cards aren’t super easy to acquire unless someone is an actual human, and in theory, users would likely fear having their credit card banned from the platform if they violate the terms of service, such as by impersonating George W. Bush. Yet, here we are, and there was indeed a George W. Bush impersonator, along with many others who don’t seem to mind losing the ability to pay for Twitter Blue with one of their credit cards.
So instead, Twitter needs something that can more accurately verify that someone is who they claim to be. For example, when I was “blue check” verified on Twitter a lifetime ago (for reasons still unbeknownst to me!), Twitter asked me to send in a scan of my photo ID and answer a few questions. While it certainly wasn’t a perfect system, it definitely went a long way in showing Twitter that I was who I said I was. I believe Twitter should expand this human verification functionality to the newer Twitter Blue service to establish more trust (and friction) into the system. This may certainly be hard to scale, but a number of emerging companies and technologies have emerged over the past few years that perform this task at scale. And I believe much of this process can now be powered by machine learning and AI, as many consumer applications have incorporated identity verification over the past few years. In fact, implementing this process may even make Twitter Blue seem even more valuable, and thus convince more people to pay for it.
Step 3: Allow users to pay to be human verified
As Musk is proposing to do with Twitter Blue, Twitter should let users pay (something like $8 per month) to be human verified. This would allow any user to pay to immediately access the human verification system referenced above in Step 2. Once verified, the account would be visually associated with the badge referenced in Step 1 and the user would have access to increased distribution that isn’t offered to non-human verified users. So this both proves that a user is real and gives them the added incentives of super charged tweets and engagement.
This should, in theory, go a long way to fighting spam, bots, and impersonators. If a user violates Twitter’s terms of service, the company would know exactly who the offender is and can punish accordingly.
However, there’s still an issue: what about people who can’t afford Twitter Blue? That’s where Step 4 comes in.
Step 4: Allow users to earn human verification
In addition to pay to be human verified, allow people to earn to be human verified. Personally, the main issue I’ve had with this new Twitter Blue plan all along is that someone could only be human verified if they paid for Twitter Blue. This seems contrary to the notion of Twitter being the global town square and giving “power to the people”. To build a platform for democratization of speech, you can’t have a platform that only enables people who pay money to get access to distribution.
“Earn human verification” would allow users who don’t want to pay for Twitter Blue the ability to be human verified if they can prove that they’re a “good actor” and positive contributor to the Twitter community over an extended period of time. Once proven, the user can access the same human verification system that Twitter Blue users pay for. This “good actor” status could be proven through a number of different signals, such as the quality of a user’s follower graph, the sentiment of their tweets, the duration of time on the platform, etc.
In fact, if a goal of Twitter’s is to drive revenue to the business through this new verification system, they could even instrument “earn to be human verified” in such a way that is ROI positive to the business. For example, perhaps the “good actor” status is only afforded to users who provide meaningful LTV (lifetime value) to Twitter through their engagement and retention on the platform. This would make it such that even if these earned users aren’t paying with dollars, they’re paying through the value they provide to the platform. A good inspiration for this idea might be Reddit Gold, which became both a VIP system and a rewards system that users can share amongst each other.
Step 5: Get rid of blue check legacy system altogether
Many have commented on how the recent Twitter Blue rollout ruined the value of the current blue checks by destroying the value of status on the platform. I understand this take. However, I believe there are plenty of other ways to earn status on Twitter, such as via growing a user’s follower count or landing viral tweets. However, if we want to move towards human-verified Twitter for the sake of free speech and zero-bot Twitter, why risk people conflating the old verification system with the new one? I say kill blue checks altogether to drive ultimate clarity around this new system.
So what went wrong?
I have no idea why the rollout was so messy because I have no inside knowledge of the situation; I’m only going off of what I’ve observed from afar, just like everyone else. And I’m definitely making a lot of assumptions in this essay, as it’s always easy to play Monday Morning Quarterback, especially in the world of flawed product rollouts. However, having spent enough time building and launching my own products, my sense is that a lot of what I’ve written above was (and perhaps still is!) largely Musk’s plan, but in the spirit of getting it done and having a big impact quickly, the team cut a lot of corners. The result ended up confusing and frustrating a lot of people instead.
That doesn’t mean Twitter is dead. Far from it! As Musk himself has stated, Twitter usage is at an all-time high. And data from Apptopia suggests that this is true:
The most engaged users of Twitter — or any product for that matter — will always be the most vocal about the product’s problems. But that doesn’t mean what they are declaring is reality or what they’re asking for is right for the business. When beloved products undergo massive change, the cool thing to do is almost always to dump on said change. But the reality is often much more nuanced. We often don’t understand the implications of major changes until long after they are made. And Musk is no stranger to these types of changes, especially through this experience building Tesla and SpaceX. Regardless of what happens next, I think it’s far too soon to dance on Twitter’s grave and declare the end of the platform. And if Elon Musk has proven anything to us over the past few decades he’s been in business, it’s that he usually finds a way to win.