Kicking against the Ticks

by Henry Farrell on April 4, 2023

Attention conservation notice: short but entirely speculative exercise in amateur sociology/game theory, by someone who has no professional license to do either, and had a blue tick for a couple of years but was always bemused as to why.

A quick note as to what went wrong with the Elon Musk strategy of giving power to the peasants. My take is that the Tyler Cowen case that “Elon is already ahead of the critics on this one, and was all along” was wrong, and that the politics of online aristocracy aren’t nearly what Musk thought they were.

My basic thesis is this. Blue ticks (more formally, ‘verified’ status on Twitter) is a particular example of an emergent online status system emerging from scarcity and social recognition. But if status is to remain economically valuable it paradoxically can’t be fully marketized. Milking status systems for money requires a degree of social astuteness that Elon Musk, for better or worse, shows no signs of possessing.

Initially, verified status was intended to solve a particular problem – that some people and organizations (famous; powerful; media personality) were particularly likely (a) to be targeted by impersonators, and (b) to have the resources to kick up an unpleasant and potentially expensive fuss when this happened. Twitter – like all big social media – did not and does not have the resources to police user registration at scale, so as to prevent impersonators from showing up. So what it did instead was to adopt the easier and cheaper solution of providing some recognizable means through which the “real” individuals could be distinguished from the fakes.

What then happened, unsurprisingly, was that getting verified came to become a connotation of social status. It showed you were important enough for Twitter to say that you were you. A blue tick beside your user name became a status good. It helped that it was linked to some notion of significance – you had been judged and somehow found worthy. It may have helped too that the process through which verified status was awarded was quite mysterious (I got verified one day, and have no good idea as to why).

Thus, then, the “lords” and “peasants” distinction that Musk drew in his tweet. And he was right that “blue ticks” drew considerable social resentment, especially from people on the right, who linked blue tick status with membership of the journalistic elite, and presumed hostility to godfearing people, Silicon Valley &c &c.

But the problem, as Musk has discovered, is that kicking against the ticks is not a profit maximizing strategy, or a particularly good money making strategy at all. The number of people who are willing to pay $8 a month is reportedly underwhelming.

In part, this may be because there aren’t very many real perquisites that come with it – as best as I know, promises that blue ticks will see less ads have gone unfulfilled, like many other promises of Musk-era Twitter. In part, it’s because the social status isn’t worth as much any more. To the extent that blue ticks are status goods, they are debased when they are sold at a scheduled market price. They don’t tell observers that the blue tick recipient has been found worthy in some mysterious process. Instead, they convey the information that the recipient is willing to spend $8 a month to get their tweets prioritized. That is not even an ambiguous signal of high social status.

Indeed, it may be a signal to the contrary. Under the current status quo, people will be unwilling to pay for blue ticks, unless they simply want to get their tweets in front of more people than they would otherwise. Their willingness to pay will hence be a negative signal of the quality of what they have to say. The current system of verification, without unlikely and expensive oversight, will overselect on spammers and egomaniacs. Second, for just this reason, ordinary Twitter users will plausibly be less willing to pay attention to accounts with blue ticks than to accounts without them.

The risk to Twitter then is of a degenerating equilibrium in which ever fewer people pay attention to verified status, leading verified status to become ever less valuable. That’s too neat and simple a story – real life social dynamics are always much messier. But I don’t think it is entirely wrong either.

Now, after originally promising to remove verification from all ‘legacy’ people who got it if they didn’t cough up, Musk seems to be contenting himself with just removing verification from the New York Times and similar groups and people who have incurred his displeasure. People who pay, and people who don’t but who got it as a legacy, are now indistinguishable from each other. In Twitter’s official language, “[t]his account is verified because it’s subscribed to Twitter Blue or is a legacy verified account.”

You probably can’t describe this outcome as the product of deliberate strategy. Musk’s management philosophy for Twitter hasn’t so much been a random walk as a grasshopper lepping around on a hotplate. But it is likely to stick for a while. The verified status system is plausibly more lucrative when it is a pooling equilibrium – that is, when it is impossible to tell who has paid for it, and who has not. The payers can parasitize some of the status of the legacies.

The actually relevant “lords and peasants” story that illustrates this is the British House of Lords. At one point in the early twentieth century, there was an actual price list. As Wikipedia describes it

Lloyd George made the practice more systematic and more brazen, charging £10,000 for a knighthood, £30,000 for baronetcy, and £50,000 upwards for a peerage. The practice came to a halt with the notorious 1922 Birthday Honours List, which contained the names of, Sir Joseph Robinson, a South African gold and diamond magnate who had been convicted of fraud and fined half a million pounds a few months earlier; Sir William Vestey, a multi-millionaire meat importer notorious for his tax evasion;Samuel Waring, who had been accused of war profiteering; and Archibald Williamson, whose oil firm had allegedly traded with the enemy during the war.

After public outcry, the law changed to make it illegal to charge for peerages and honors. Of course, it is still the case that you can get elevated to a life peerage for handing over dollops of cash to political parties. But this is decently obscured beneath a veil of official reticence. Certainly, there is nothing so vulgar as an itemized schedule of payments.

The British system of peerages still works as a moneymaker for UK political parties, because it blurs the status of those who paid hard money, and those who get them for good works, as well as the tarnished luster of feudal arrangements. It will be interesting to see whether Musk can maintain a similarly profitable degree of ambiguity.

I suspect not, because it requires a kind of acumen about social systems that he doesn’t appear to possess. Many legacy blue tick people are loudly proclaiming in tweets or in their profiles that they would never pay. They want to preserve their status, rather than have it debased by association, or at the least, not be identified as the kinds of people who would pay for the increasingly dubious status of being a blue tick (I’m of that class myself). Keeping a balance between those who provide lustre and those who provide lucre, requires the kind of steady hand that Musk doesn’t seem to possess.



engels 04.04.23 at 7:23 pm

To make it more like the British system there should be an arcane hierarchy of ticks that few of the rest of us can even make sense of, let alone care about.


Tim Worstall 04.04.23 at 7:35 pm

The proof and glory of market based economic systems:

“But the problem, as Musk has discovered, is that kicking against the ticks is not a profit maximizing strategy, or indeed a particularly good money making strategy either. ”

Hmm, that didn’t work. We’ll try something else, shall we? The glory being that this change happens faster in capitalist profit chasing markets than any other system.

But then I agree that I’m biased.


Tm 04.04.23 at 8:02 pm

„What then happened, unsurprisingly, was that getting verified came to become a connotation of social status.“

Is this true, is there any actually verifiable evidence for this claim?


Tm 04.04.23 at 8:13 pm

„What then happened, unsurprisingly, was that getting verified came to become a connotation of social status.“

Is this true, is there any actually verifiable evidence for this claim (which your whole argument relies on)? It seems to me that if anything, number of followers is a far more relevant status marker.


Henry Farrell 04.04.23 at 9:24 pm

Is this true, is there any actually verifiable evidence for this claim?

Elites Tweet? Characterizing the Twitter Verified User Network

Abstract—Social network and publishing platforms, such as
Twitter, support the concept of verification. Verified accounts
are deemed worthy of platform-wide public interest and are
separately authenticated by the platform itself. There have
been repeated assertions by these platforms about verification
not being tantamount to endorsement. However, a significant
body of prior work suggests that possessing a verified status
symbolizes enhanced credibility in the eyes of the platform
audience. As a result, such a status is highly coveted among
public figures and influencers.


Alex SL 04.04.23 at 9:48 pm

The dynamics of how the blue tick is now devalued are well captured here, although to be fair, this was quite obvious ahead of time and predicted by numerous people. But the key problem is that discussing the blue tick as a status marker is misguided. Yes, some people very, very wrongly saw it as that, but that was neither its intended purpose nor its actual benefit. This discussion would make more sense if it centered on the fact that EM did not understand the blue tick was for, and that making people pay for something that does not benefit them or their followers but very specifically only benefits non-followers happening upon one of their tweets was never going to work, instead of effectively accepting as correct EM’s misunderstanding that it was a status marker.

A related puzzle is why so many people can see every day what he is doing and what the consequences are and yet still hero-worship him and continue to believe that being a billionaire is evidence of genius. Or more generally, why do we live in an age of cults, and what can we do to have fewer people get caught up in such cultish behaviour?


Ebenezer Scrooge 04.04.23 at 10:07 pm

Tim@2 is banging the market drum again. “[C]hange happens faster in capitalist profit chasing markets than any other system.” Not so. The most rapid evolution occurs in the most communized of systems: a military fighting a serious war. I’d say that roughly the same thing is true for any system under existential stress, such as central banking in a financial crisis. Most capitalism doesn’t cut it, because most firms aren’t under existential stress. Many successful firms are fat & happy, and intend to stay that way. (The B-school term is “moats”.)

Twitter? The firm may be under existential stress. But the firm is managed by Elon Musk, whose actions track his biorhythms more than any cognizable rationality.


Phil 04.05.23 at 9:36 am

The original blue tick looks pretty bizarre when you think about it: “you’ll get a blue tick if the guys we’ve got working on this stuff recognise your name, and they’re satisfied that you are who you say you are, and [other stuff that we’ll probably never know about] – and no, you can’t ask for one, no, you don’t have to pay for it, and no, it doesn’t actually get you anything, it’s just a tick by your name”. But I think what kept it reasonably functional for so long was precisely that it was something handed down by Twitter, whether for obvious reasons or arbitrarily. “You’ll get a tick if you ask for it and $CONDITION” is just a series of different failure modes – make it expensive and it’ll only go to celebrities and corporations; make it free and it’ll go to people who want to troll celebrities and corporations; make it about the same price as Netflix and it’ll go to people who value their Twitter platform as much as they value Netflix, which isn’t necessarily the kind of person anyone else wants to hear from.


TM 04.05.23 at 9:40 am

Re 5, the arxiv paper is very technical and partly beyond my expertise but unless I don’t understand the code, it doesn’t actually say much about the social status value of the blue tick. The paper’s conclusions are restricted to technical mathematical measurements without much in terms of interpretation and discussion. Since only users “of public interest” used to be verified, it’s unclear whether the verification status actually enhances their perceived social status (in addition to a high follower count). And the high connectedness, if I understand correctly, could simply indicate that many of the verified users are journalists who professionally connect to each other.

A remark on the House of Lords comparison. The bought peerage can only be a social status marker as long as it’s so expensive as to be restricted to a small elite. And it can only be expensive if it offers an actual value worth paying for. Both of which are not the case for Musk’s “verification for sale”. What else is there to say?


Tim Worstall 04.05.23 at 10:53 am

“a military fighting a serious war”

Possible to argue that that’s a market based system, no? There is, after all, a competition going on…..


engels 04.05.23 at 11:11 am

Obviously the blue tick was a status marker and it was rightly seen as a joke on the left as much as the right. As everyone from Harvard and Yale to S&P and EY can tell you, charging for certification makes a lot of financial sense, especially in a disintegrating post-truth kleptocracy like the US.


TM 04.05.23 at 12:57 pm

engels 11: It was a status marker but everybody saw it as a joke? Kind of beats the purpose…

I consider Porsches and Rolexes ridiculous in the sense that a person who values such things as status markers exposes themselves as dumb and/or pathetic, but I’m a bit of an outlier. If everybody considered Porsches ridiculous, they would lose their function as a status marker.


Lee A. Arnold 04.05.23 at 11:34 pm

What happens if you don’t get a blue tick and somebody else impersonates you and causes you reputational or even material damage? Because you wouldn’t pay $8 a month? Isn’t that blackmail?


engels 04.05.23 at 11:43 pm

I didn’t say “everybody”. It was a status marker for the media establishment/centrists and a standing joke for their opponents. Knighthoods etc in Britain have a similarly ambivalent reception which is why some people don’t take them.


John Quiggin 04.06.23 at 9:40 am

It seems as if the new Blue Tick is a cross between the original status symbol and “Premium Economy”, which amounts to “what you used to get in Economy class, but now have to pay extra for”. Day by day, there are new things everyone used to get but now restricted to Blue Ticks.

That might work. But an equally plausible scenario is that each restriction drives more people off the site, to Mastodon or even to real life, until no one finds Twitter worth paying for.


engels 04.06.23 at 12:37 pm

I don’t have high hopes for Muskker but doesn’t anyone else remember the saying “if you’re not paying, you’re the product”? Liberal nostalgia for “free” Twitter seems a bit odd to me.


Sashas 04.06.23 at 3:20 pm

One of the most reliable signs of a weak argument is the word “obviously”.

Blue ticks are not and never were a status symbol. Blue ticks were (and no longer are) a marker of something else, which in turn had perceived status effects. The indirection is really important to this discussion.

First, what did an idealized version of the early blue tick actually indicate? It meant that Twitter had verified, independently, that you were actually who you said you were. You weren’t a Barack Obama impersonator, but actually Barack Obama. You weren’t a New York Times impersonator, but actually the New York Times. This is not a status symbol. This is a marker which allows trust of Twitter the company to be conveyed onto your account. In the extent to which I trust that Twitter itself won’t impersonate on its website (which at least for me was honestly a very high degree of trust!) I now trusted that the Blue Check NYT was actually the NYT for real.

In and of itself, this conveys no status. Joe Nobody is still Joe Nobody even with a blue check, and if I distrust a public figure the presence of a blue check just more solidly conveys my distrust onto their account. However, there is a very consistent pattern that impersonators are not to be trusted. At best they are parody accounts lampooning someone I don’t like. Most likely though they are spreading disinformation by convincing the gullible that their impersonatee says things they actually don’t.

So getting a blue check becomes a way of attaining the status of “Twitter says I’m not an impersonator”, and that’s pretty unambiguously positive for the vast majority of accounts. It’s especially positive for anyone who actually attracts impersonators, and here’s where I think the “status symbol” argument slips in. Because having a blue check doesn’t just mean that you aren’t an impersonator. It means somebody at Twitter was convinced you are important enough to potentially attract impersonators. And blue check implying important does sound like a status symbol. But again, there’s a layer of indirection. Blue check implies not an impersonator, and that Twitter was willing to go through the effort of checking implies important enough for this to matter.

I’ll note at this point that I haven’t “proved” anything. But I’ve provided an account of mechanically what a blue check does (did), and a narrative account of why that would be construed as a status symbol. And an argument of why I think “status symbol” is a dangerously incomplete analysis.

I’ll also note that, except for emphasizing the indirection, the OP already said basically all of what I’ve said here.

Once you can pay for a blue check, presumably without further verification, it ceases to serve the role of verification. It becomes directly a status symbol, rather than only indirectly. Shocking (I hope) nobody, “I paid $8 for this” is a really pathetic status symbol.

While we’re doing amateur game theory though, I think it’s worth noting who getting rid of the old blue check system really helps: impersonators! The change to allowing people to pay for “verification” without actually getting verified allows anyone with deep enough pockets to once again abuse the gullible and the underinformed and spread disinformation. I don’t ascribe any particular expert skills to Musk, but I think he’s been a fairly reliable member of the Alt Right Troll class, and they’re historically pro-disinformation.


engels 04.06.23 at 6:04 pm

One of the most reliable signs of a weak argument is the word “obviously”.

No, it’s a sign that someone has no intention of making an argument, or getting into one. (If you wish to claim it was a “marker of something else, which in turn had perceived status effects” fill your boots: that makes zero difference to anything important afaics.)


Tm 04.06.23 at 7:20 pm

Engels, one can express annoyance at Musk’s idiotic handling of Twitter without being naive or nostalgic about pre-Musk Twitter.

I personally don’t care if Musk charges Twitter users. Let those willing to pay pay him and let the rest get out the sooner the better. What does concern me is that Musk‘s „whoever pays can pretend to be verified“ principle promotes impersonation, trolling and disinformation, and that Musk welcomes Nazis.


On the plus side, few advertisers wish to appear next to scumbags like that.


John Q 04.06.23 at 7:21 pm

“One of the most reliable signs of a weak argument is the word “obviously”.”

My own version of this is

Quiggin’s Rule of “Surely”: It’s a sure sign that you aren’t sure


Tm 04.06.23 at 7:24 pm

Thanks Sashas for your patient explanation…


engels 04.06.23 at 7:41 pm

Damn, I’ll have to go back to saying “it is manifest by the natural light…”


engels 04.06.23 at 8:55 pm

There were lots of other aspects of the old system people here are missing (eg it meant your replies had greater prominence). If Twitter hadn’t wanted it to be a status symbol it could have offered it to everyone who confirmed their name with photo id, but it only offered it to “prominent” people, ergo it was a status symbol. I think this is all pretty obvious to anyone who was ever on Twitter (which iirc TM said he never was).


Tm 04.07.23 at 7:37 am

The thing is, I asked whether there was verifiable evidence for the status marker claim.


Alex SL 04.08.23 at 5:21 am


I know you really, really hate Twitter, and it is unsurprising that that would colour your argumentation here, but you could just as well argue that bodyguards are a status symbol. Yes, one could see that as a secondary aspect, but their primary intended and practical purpose is to protect against attacks and abductions. Same regarding primary purpose versus accidental secondary effect for the tick.

And yes, Twitter could have given the tick to everybody who went through a verification process, just like a government could give every single one of its citizen two bodyguards so that it becomes clear even to you that bodyguards aren’t a status symbol but on second thought wait that might be a resourcing issue actually do you see where the problem is


engels 04.08.23 at 8:14 pm

Yes bodyguards (and PAs etc) are status markers (what Graeber called “flunkies”) as well as having a practical function. Luxury cars, yachts and mansions would be an even more mundane example. I don’t understand why anyone would think status symbols have to be useless but if you guys do: okay whatever.

It would be pathetically easy for Twitter to confirm all its users names (a lot easier than trying to determine whether or not they are Persons of Note).


engels 04.09.23 at 1:45 pm


JimV 04.11.23 at 5:25 am

I’m guessing (so this is worth what you paid for it) that it takes somewhere between 20 minutes and two weeks to verify somebody’s identity, and the more well-known they are the easier it is. Before the paywall kicked in for the Forbes article. all I could see was that Twitter wanted to verify that accounts were who they said they were (I would too), but not that it wouldn’t require resources to do; and for some reason they never did it. My guess is it required resources (i.e., people’s time).

Setting up a fake identity also takes some time, also from 20 minutes (photoshop a photo id to be submitted online) on up, but the imposter only has to do once per imposture, not millions of times. I get several emails from imposters (asking me to click on a link) per month; some are obvious but I’m not going to click on anything in an email unless it was one I was expecting to get.

That’s what seems obvious to me, surely. (But don’t call me surely.)

Paying for verification would make some sense if there was actual verification work being done. If there isn’t, and I expect what with all the layoffs Twitter is less able to do so for a lot of people now than when it considered doing so in 2018, then it is just another Musk scam.

“Notable” as Twitter defines it could mean “has many followers”. (Which also could be a status symbol.) Those people probably think Twitter should be paying them, not them paying Twitter.


TM 04.11.23 at 7:29 am

I would also say hat body guards are de facto status markers. The difference with Twitter verification is that it wasn’t restricted to the rich and powerful, it was also given to some regular journalists and academics (through an intransparent process), and while you have to be able to afford body guards (or yachts), the blue tick wasn’t a cost issue. Further, the number of followers seems a far more relevant marker of prominence than the blue tick. So if one comes across a Twitter user with few followers whose name one doesn’t recognize, it seems unlikely to me that the presence of a blue tick would make much of a “wow” impression. Does it to you, engels?

I’m not sure that it would be so easy for Twitter to verify all its users, if verification is more than a routine check and actually protects against impersonators. What I’m sure of is that the new “verification” system doesn’t verify anything other than payment status, and that’s … not good.


engels 04.11.23 at 7:45 pm

Amazon Prime Student verifies its members by academic email addresses or photo id. I’ve no idea what that costs to do but I imagine it isn’t much. Obviously APS has much higher revenue per user (Twitter makes about $20 per tweep on ad sales I believe). But obviously they could charge an admin fee.


Sashas 04.12.23 at 2:54 am


I found a non-paywalled version on Yahoo Finance. Same title, author, and date, and the contents matched up to the paywall so I think it’s the same article. The article quoted that Dorsey wanted to do universal verification, but provided zero information on how (other than to explicitly say that no information had been provided). For what it’s worth, I believe universal verification is not possible for a single company to enact. I don’t see any way around sock-puppets.


TM 04.12.23 at 3:21 pm

I don’t know what the cost of reliable user identification would be for Twitter. Not trivial certainly but it could be done. Banks and other companies also have to identify their customers and do it increasingly online, although, contrary to social networks, they don’t operate globally and don’t have hundreds of millions of customers. So I wouldn’t underestimate the cost of such an endeavor. In any case, apparently neither the old nor the current management were/are seriously interested in offering such an option.


Tm 04.12.23 at 4:22 pm

I now realize that name verification probably isn’t the issue. It’s easy to verify a name but names are not unique. The challenge for a social network that wants to prevent imposture is checking the office or affiliation somebody claims in their profile. Now that is a lot more difficult and may be the reason why it would be hard to offer a universal verification service.


engels 04.13.23 at 11:59 am

My guess is it required resources

Good job they’re a $20 billion corporation that just went out and bought 10 000 GPUs:


engels 04.13.23 at 12:07 pm

I should say I don’t actually want Twitter to institute a real name policy (because I like to comment anonymously… obviously… surely) but the idea that (unlike colonizing Mars and passing the Turing test) it is technologically impossible doesn’t seem very plausible to me.


engels 04.17.23 at 4:35 pm

I wonder if we’ll reach the point in the Sneetches when it becomes cooler not to have a star though.

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