A few months ago, a blue check mark on a Twitter post indicated a certain level of credibility.
“This comment is worth paying attention to,” you might think upon seeing the check mark. “After all, this account is clearly someone notable – a movie star, a journalist, or an organization.”
Today, when you see a blue check mark next to someone’s name, your reaction is probably pretty different.
You might think: “Ugh.” Or: “Not worth reading.” Or: “No wonder this comment is so trollish / racist / misogynist / cringey / obsessed with Elon.”
How did things change so quickly? How did Twitter’s coveted blue check mark go from a status symbol to a warning sign in just a few months?
Let’s dig in.
A quick and dirty history of Twitter’s blue check mark
Twitter launched a beta version of verification all the way back in 2009, after then-St. Louis Cardinals manager (slash current White Sox embarrassment) Tony LaRussa sued the company over being impersonated on the social network.
The purpose of verification was pretty straightforward: give users a way to distinguish between real celebrities and parody accounts, and reassure celebrities that they would not be impersonated.
In other words, if Taylor Swift tweets, “I’m in love with Kanye West” (not likely), you knew it was actually her and not one of thousands of copycats.
In the years between 2009 and 2022, the Twitter blue check mark became known as a status symbol. Websites shared tips and tricks for getting verified, and users celebrated when they got the coveted blue check mark added to their account.
When Elon Musk took over Twitter in 2022, he quickly announced that he would start to do away with the verification system, calling it a “lords and peasants” system that stood in the way of equality on the platform.
A series of awkward fumbles followed:
- In 2022, Musk announced he would start charging $20/month for a verification badge via a Twitter Blue subscription
- When the $20 price didn’t seem to sit well, he pivoted to $8/month
- In November 2022, Twitter put the new verification policy on hold, after the $8-for-blue-check-mark change spawned a wave of imitation accounts
- In December 2022, Twitter Blue made its triumphant return: Subscribers were allowed a blue checkmark, as long as their accounts were shown to not be impersonating anyone
- On April 20, 2023, Twitter started removing blue check marks from users’ profiles if they had been previously verified but had refused to pay for Twitter Blue (note: emails to the Twitter comms department about the change automatically replied with a poop emoji)
But not every “verified” account had their blue check mark removed. In the days after April 20, a wave of celebrities – including LeBron James, Stephen King, Jason Alexander, Lil Nas X, and Chrissy Teigen – took pains to emphasize that while they still had a blue check mark, they had not paid for Twitter Blue.
Think about that shift for a second: The Twitter blue check mark, which just a few months ago was seen as a coveted status symbol, is now being vehemently disavowed by celebrities all over the internet.
What the heck happened?
How did Twitter Blue become so embarrassing?
The rapid shift in the blue check mark’s reputation and associations is astonishing. So let’s dive into how it happened, using lessons from Section’s Brand Strategy and Viral Growth sprints.
1. Elon removed scarcity and therefore drove down the perceived value.
Every product contains quality cues – or characteristics that indicate the product’s level of value to customers.
Think about an AmEx black card, which requires around $250,000 in annual spending in order to qualify. As soon as you see and feel the weight of that card, you understand that it’s not the same as other credit cards. And since so few people have one, it immediately becomes associated with luxury and prestige – a status symbol.
Twitter’s blue check mark used to be like this. You couldn’t buy a check mark; you could only qualify for one through a certain level of fame. Because check marks were scarce, they inherently conveyed quality to their audience (particularly those who couldn’t access them).
By opening up check marks to anyone with $8 a month, Elon destroyed their scarcity, which drove down their perceived value considerably.
If you want your product to be coveted as a high-value item, make it harder to access.
Watch Scott Galloway’s lesson on how Supreme conveys quality cues using scarcity
2. The user base changed and became a club you wouldn’t want to be associated with.
If you want people to covet your product, they have to be able to see people using it in the real world – and those people have to be the type of people your prospects want to copy.
A year ago, a blue check mark was the ultimate status symbol because of the people who “wore” it on their profiles. LeBron James, Lady Gaga, Bill Gates – they all had blue check marks, and thus imbued the blue check mark with a higher quality association.
Think of a Louboutin heel, with its signature red sole. When you see Gigi Hadid, Rihanna, and Jennifer Lopez wearing Louboutins, you associate the heel with luxury and want to own one. That wouldn’t be true if Louboutins were the footwear of choice for, say, your high school gym teacher.
When Elon started removing blue check marks from celebrity profiles and giving them to anyone with $8, he changed the user base for the mark. Namely, the base became Elon fanboys, online trolls, and “wannabes” – the people who had yearned for blue check mark status, but didn’t have the credentials to earn it.
People copy people they want to be like, so make sure your marketing and product strategy attracts your ideal customer (not just anyone who will buy your product).
Watch Jonah Berger's lesson on making your product more publicly noticeable
3. Elon’s reputation soured and took Twitter’s brand down with it.
Brands are built through a series of associations, and one of those associations is the head of the company (if they’re a public figure).
Think of Virgin Airlines CEO Richard Branson. The scraggly-haired, rebellious school dropout imbues Virgin Airlines with the qualities that people associate with him: honest and authentic, boundary-pushing, adventurous.
Elon Musk has always been one of those CEOs. In the Brand Strategy Sprint, Prof. Galloway said of Tesla: “Their brand is also associated with unpredictability, particularly around Musk’s behavior and personal tweets.”
When Musk took over Twitter in 2022, the brand’s reputation started to change, largely because of Musk himself. In the last six months, he has:
- Laid off 80% of Twitter’s staff and failed to pay some of its bills
- Publicly mocked an employee with a disability on Twitter
- Given credence to conspiracy theories about the attack on Paul Pelosi
- Revealed that he has an alt account where he trolls as his three-year-old son
When you pay for Twitter Blue, you’re signaling that you agree with Musk’s changes to the platform and support him as a leader. And as Musk does increasingly unpopular things on the platform, that’s a signal many people don’t want to send.
Make sure your public-facing leadership represents what your company stands for – not just in what they do, but in how they present themselves.
Watch Scott Galloway's lesson on how Elon's reputation affected Tesla's brand identity
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