It’s a bad idea for Twitter

An idea was recently floated that Twitter might be able to solve its harassment issues by letting anyone pay a fee to establish a verified account – an account with a blue checkmark next to one's bio avatar and whose owner has had her or his identity verified by some means such as a credit card.

Although some have suggested this could be a good idea, it's an idea floating on fantasy and not product reality. Here are just three reasons why I don't support it.

Elitist

Twitter's success and value has always been based on a reverse chronological presentation of equally valued tweets. True, not every tweet is of equal value in the same way to each person at every given moment, but mature intelligent users have been quite capable of simply bypassing or ignoring tweets that are of little interest. It's the Twitter way – now enhanced with blocking and muting features in official and 3rd party Twitter apps. One person's junk is another's treasure though – the yard sale mantra – is quite on the mark when it comes to tweets.

Although Twitter users can decide what tweets to read or respond to, the idea of paid-for verified accounts removes the serendipity that Twitter's brand value has been built on and replaces it with an elitist view that treasured tweets come from those with a credit card or home address (privacy and infosec alarms should be blaring about now).

Supposedly, this new “feature” would work by giving users an option to read or receive responses from only those who are paying to play for identity verification under the guise of controling harassment. However, is this the Twitter world that we really want to live in? A world where a few elitists decide that verified accounts are the holders of tweet value is not one I personally want to support. Just because I disagree with a tweet, doesn't mean I want to filter my thin-skinned perception by some abitrary checkmark.

Elitest ideas come and go, but they unfortunately leave their mark within the ruins of brand reputation and user experience whenever a small “techie-knows-better” solution is presented to a problem that is not fully understood.

Any tweet can have value and I choose to decide which ones they are for me by their content – not a checkmark, credit card, or address.

Details

Too many ideas get floated without much thought to the details – like this paid verification one. How exactly would it work?

Supposedly, users would be given an option to read tweets only from verified accounts or perhaps have the abilty to reply to verifed accounts only if their own account is also verified. So we're talking about adding more options, onboarding processes, and complexity for new users when Twitter is already struggling for new user signups. That doesn't sound like the smart play to me.

Will we also now have to contend with a new timeline feed or tab – one dedicated to only verified accounts? In an effort to get users to even try this out, would this have to become the default view, now requiring another click or swipe to get past?

Do supporters of the pay for verification idea realize that their timelines will be greatly reduced and highly filtered with only a small minority opting into it? Is that the Twitter world they want to live in? To me, it sounds more fitted for Facebook.

We live in an online world where weekly hacks are commonplace. Will users feel comfortable handing over their credit card to one more company just to get a checkmark next to their Twitter name? Infosec is one topic that needs to weigh heavily in this discussion. It certainly wasn't raised by the supporters and originator of this idea.

Supporting a paid verified account feature doesn't exactly sound trivial to me either. How will this API change affect 3rd parties or even web embeds? How will it meld with Search?

How exactly is this going to prevent harassment when vitriol tweets will still continue beyond the paid-for-verification walls? Is sticking one's head in the sand, the real solution?

Even if we ignore the details for now, isn't verified identity a successful way to control harassment?

History

Pseudonymity is not the problem. It's Twitter's path to success. It's a naive view that blames pseudonymity for online harassment. The fact is, Twitter succeeds because users can share content using their real names or not. This has created a place filled with valuable information unlike most other platforms.

So let's look at the history of identity verification. Google tried it and failed. Google is at the point where it's probably a moot point anyways because it already has our identity pretty well figured out, but how can anyone forget the Google+ days of the #nymwars – a time when Google wanted its users to verify their identity? It was a massive failure that Google could never get right. It's processes for verifying identity were so broken, that I'd argue that G+ was forever damaged over it. Just do a Google search of Nymwars and read away – something that anyone supporting identity verification should do.

Even when Google+ was forcing users to use real sounding names and verified what it felt were non-standard names with government issued IDs, there was no shortage of vitriol posts.

Facebook is no different. Anyone who says Facebook succeeds because it ties identity to an account is closing their eyes to the facts. Some people are very comfortable being unkind using their “real” names. It doesn't require much effort to find examples of harassment on Facebook.

Trying to link identity to user accounts succeeds in reducing the variety of quality content a platform such as Twitter needs in order to differentiate itself. It simply shuts the door of open engagement because it limits those who don't have a credit card or who have legitimate privacy concerns.

I seriously hope that the Twitter executive team will not give serious consideration to this pay-for-verification idea. A few short-term dollars should not be considered worth the gamble and failure experienced by other identity verification pundits to the brand reputation that Twitter should be proud of.

Dealing with harrassment is not going to be solved with identity verification. Let's work on a credible solution – one not based on elitism, one with details clearly thought through, and one that doesn't ignore history.

[Update 02/10/14]Today, Twitter’s own CFO saw his Twitter account hijacked. Hmmm, I imagine that there will be even fewer users willing to opt-in to a pay-for-verification plan with a credit card now.

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