“There shouldn’t be a different standard for celebrities imo [in my opinion],” tweeted Elon Musk in response to a complaint from the actor William Shatner that Twitter’s system of verified “blue tick” badges, awarded on a merit-based system to accounts and brands with public status to ensure they can’t be imitated by trolls, will begin to be removed from the end of this week. They will be replaced by Twitter Blue, which allows anyone to have a blue tick, so long as they’re willing to pay $11 a month for it. That echoed a previous sentiment from Musk. “Twitter’s current lords & peasants system for who does or doesn’t have a blue checkmark is bullshit,” he tweeted in November last year, shortly after his takeover of the site was completed.
It’s no surprise that Musk, one of the triad of billionaires rotating around the top spot on the “richest man in the world” list, doesn’t realise his paid-for version constitutes a very literal “lords & peasants” system – as in, some will be able to afford $132 a year for extra visibility, followers and clout on Twitter, but most won’t. To him, overriding the old merit-based system with one where money, rather than qualification or achievement, takes priority is an obvious move: he is, after all, from the “everyone has the same 24 hours” school of entrepreneurship. In his world money equals success – thus, those who are able to pay to join his club are a self-selecting elite.
The new system proposes a new kind of internet, one in which the concerns of fraudsters and narcissists are put first: an Internet of Losers.
The original point of Twitter’s Verified system was to help users to distinguish between accounts they could trust and accounts they needed to exercise caution over. Blue ticks were, for a time, so trusted that some large media organisations used it as a shortcut, allowing their journalists to determine at speed which tweets were trustworthy enough to cite without having to go through much due diligence. The Verified system certainly had problems, and did create a sort of class system on Twitter, whereby those with a tick were perceived to have higher social capital. There is not anything necessarily wrong with Musk’s plan to give “power to the people!” and turn the tables on the perceived “elites” who were awarded the blue ticks in the first place.
[See also: I closed my Twitter account. So now what?]
Yet rather than improve the system, he has simply decided to replace it with one in which anyone can buy their way in, in which trust is replaced by money, and in which people who couldn’t get verified in the past can just pay Elon Musk for clout.
This is an old idea. Alongside Twitter, Instagram and other platforms, a grey market in fake followers has arisen. People who can’t build a real follower base buy followers to con their way into the influencer game – more than half of marketing firms who use influencers say they have experienced follower fraud this year – or in a pathetic attempt to appear consequential. To be exposed as a buyer of fake followers is humiliating, so Twitter Blue will reportedly make it possible to hide the blue checkmark that shows the user has paid to appear popular on the internet.
The founding principle of social media is that it creates voluntary communities of people with shared interests. Musk is proposing a grudging community of people who wanted to be popular, but failed.
In a very real sense, Musk is the world’s biggest loser, in that he was confirmed in January by Guinness World Records to have broken the record for the largest loss of personal fortune in history. The loss – triggered by a drop in Tesla’s share price that was exacerbated when investors lost confidence in the company following Musk’s acquisition of, and subsequent single-minded obsession with, Twitter – is so colossal that Guinness World Records had to venture a guess between $182bn and $200bn. The previous record, set by Softbank’s Masayoshi Son in the dotcom crash of 2000, was a mere $58.6bn.
People who pay for Twitter Blue are also, in a less tangible but no less real way, losers, because they are being duped into helping Musk to service the $25.5bn of loans and credit facilities that he took out to fund one of the biggest leveraged buyouts in history. And Twitter’s finances are hardly robust: in January it admitted revenues had dropped by 40 per cent after more than 500 advertising clients “paused” spending. From a financial perspective, Musk activating his following in the way he has done is a smart move: like Andrew Tate, Musk seems to attract a particular brand of young, male disciple impressed by conspicuous consumption. It may be that Musk’s adolescent quasi-religion of fast cars, rockets and greed are enough to create a psychological in-group in which members will pay to be included.
So far, however, that group appears to be smaller than Musk had hoped; leaked internal documents have suggested that as of January, less than 300,000 people, or 0.2 per cent of Twitter’s monthly active users, were paying for Blue membership. At $11 a month, it will take more than nine million members for Twitter Blue to pay the interest on Musk’s debts.
The problem with the likes of Musk – and Tate, and all the others who still feel like outsiders, even if they have bought their way into a club – is that joining an in-crowd has to be an organic process. If you have to do something as crass as paying to get in, it isn’t an in-crowd at all.