The modern-day verified social media account was born in June 2009
, when the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals sued Twitter
because someone had created an account to impersonate him. In the years since, the question of what verification should mean — and who should be eligible to be verified — has bedeviled every social network that’s ever attempted to do it.
The problems with Twitter’s program have long been evident
. The process to become verified was, and still remains, opaque; and Twitter began removing verification badges from people who had behaved badly in the real world, causing many people to conflate verification with some kind of moral endorsement. More recently, Twitter said it had “paused” the program so it could work out some of these issues, and then continued to secretly verify thousands of accounts anyway
For all its problems, though, Twitter’s double-secret verification program still looks superior to the clunker that YouTube rolled out on Thursday
. In a blog post
that hit like a bombshell in the creator community, the company said it would begin removing verification badges for an unspecified number of accounts as part of a program overhaul. The newly unverified would be allowed to appeal. But because YouTube said little about which accounts it actually did want to unverify, creators assumed the worst, and posted panicked videos to their subscribers about the coming rapture of the badges.
The core problem with YouTube’s new approach to checkmarks, as I saw it, was that mass unverifying people would seem to *reduce* trust in the program rather than enhance it. If a badge can be taken away at any time, for any reason, what did it really mean in the first place?
I also take issue with new program’s visual design. The company plans to replace the familiar checkmark badge with a muted gray parallelogram banner whose meaning could not be less clear. YouTube’s rationale is that its users, like Twitter’s before it, have wrongly come to interpret the checkmark as an endorsement of character.
But the gray banner strikes me as being just as easy to confuse. It’s an unfamiliar shape, easy to miss, and now inconsistent with the other platforms where YouTube’s creators do their work. (It will become more familiar over time, of course, but it’s not at all still clear to me that a different shape will end confusion over whether a badge equates to an endorsement.)
Most importantly, YouTube’s proposed changes threatened to create financial problems for thousands of creators who rely on verification to facilitate the brand sponsorship deals that, for so many of them, are their lifeblood. For example, YouTubers who stream their video-game playing posted anxious videos in which they said they would be unlikely to get download codes ahead of time for the games they review. For a creator community that already struggles with the daily specter of copyright strikes and the seemingly random demonetization of their videos, the loss of the checkmark promised to be a heavy blow.
Now, YouTube’s approach to verification absolutely did need to change. The company’s previous policy was to verify accounts with more than 100,000 subscribers even in cases in which it had not, uh, verified the identity of anyone who worked on it. To the extent that YouTube’s new system was meant to actually verify its verified users, it was a good thing.
Fortunately, a day after the outcry, YouTube walked back the worst aspects of its proposed changes. “I’m sorry for the frustration & hurt that we caused with our new approach to verification,” YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki tweeted
. “While trying to make improvements, we missed the mark. As I write this, we’re working to address your concerns & we’ll have more updates soon.”
The most important change YouTube made in response to criticism is that it no longer plans to mass-unverify creators or force them to file appeals to keep their checkmarks. (The rollout of the gray parallelogram has been kicked down the road as well, and here’s hoping it gets a redesign along the way.) And incidentally, I still think YouTube can and should remove the badge on any verified channels that are actively misrepresenting themselves. If the company discloses those moves publicly with a clear rationale, it should serve to increase trust in the platform.
Before today, I would have said that the company that has done the best job with verification to date has been Instagram. The company’s approach to issuing checkmarks has been judicious but consistent: they are available mostly to accounts that are at risk of impersonation. Instagram lets anyone apply for a checkmark, and they seem to be mostly fairly distributed.
But today we learned that Instagram has also used the checkmark in an anti-competitive matter. Here’s Georgia Wells and Deepa Seetharaman in the Wall Street Journal
, in an excellent story about information Snap
has provided to the Federal Trade Commission for its antitrust investigation into Facebook:
Instagram representatives also started pressuring influencers to stop adding Snapchat links to their Instagram profile pages, according to people familiar with the conversations.
The Instagram representatives suggested to some influencers that they could potentially void the users’ “verified” status, which signifies that an account is legitimate and popular, according to one of those people.
Losing the blue check mark that comes with being verified can undermine an influencer’s ability to secure paid deals, which can range from hundreds to millions of dollars depending on the influencer’s popularity.
In each platform’s verification mess you can see what it truly fears: for Twitter and YouTube, it’s the user base; and for Facebook, it’s competition.
In any case, the goal of verifying users remains a noble one. When administered properly, these programs make us feel more confident about the authenticity of our news and video feeds. Perhaps someday we’ll see a system that meaningfully expands its number of verified users in a way that makes us trust the platform more — and isn’t secretly using it as a cudgel with which to beat its rivals.
As it stand, though, that day seems a good ways off.