“Blue Tick Brigade”: A critique of Twitter’s verification system as a shaper of online self-presentation

On: October 24, 2019
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By Agustín Ferrari Braun, Eleni Maragkou, Marie-Liesse H, Shivaani Gore

Over the course of the past years, politics in Europe and the United States have become increasingly concerned with the nature of online personhood. Only last month, the far-right party ÖVP won the Austrian legislative elections with a program that promised the end of online anonymity in the country. Similar ideas have been voiced by both sides of the political spectrum in France, Spain and Germany among others. In the U.S. and the U.K. legislators have been increasingly concerned about who is a real person online, after it was claimed that bots played a major role in the vote for Brexit and the election of Donald Trump.

In many ways it is as if the political class has caught up with a question that has obsessed researchers and journalists for decades: How is personhood produced online? From Julian Dibbell’s seminal essay “A Rape in Cyberspace” (1993) to contemporary analyses of anonymity and democracy (Coleman 2014; Benkler et al.; 2018 Hoffman 2019…), the relationship between online and offline personas has provided a fertile ground for analysis from various disciplines.

In this blog post, we will follow this tradition by exploring how self-presentation and personhood are enacted on Twitter. While there is a growing literature on this platform, we must point out that the academic discourse on online personhood has been largely concerned with other online spaces, such as 4chan, Facebook, YouTube or Instagram (Tuters and Zeeuw 2019; Michikyan et al. 2015; Chen 2014; Yau and Reich 2019). Twitter has been studied in relation to topics such as the creation of networks (Bruns et al. 2013; Papacharissi and de Fatima Oliveira 2012), cultural performances (Lim 2012; Bonilla and Rosa 2015) and political activism (Segerberg and Bennett 2011; Poell and van Dijck 2018).

There are many valid reasons for this choice. Twitter does not have a particularly strong stance on anonymity, it doesn’t aim at connecting users with persons that they know offline, the space offered to self-presentation is scarce etc. However, Twitter has a number of affordances that make it very interesting to study the nature of online personhood and how it interacts with the desires of the corporations behind the platforms. Twitter’s design heavily encourages users to adopt a stable online persona (Curlew 2019) but, at the same time, it has a strict set of rules unilaterally defined by the corporation, whose aim is to steer the user’s behaviour in a certain direction. In this piece we will argue that Twitter’s terms of service and verification system privileges certain forms of public personhood while actively censoring others.

To do so, we will start by analysing what it means to be a person in an online environment like Twitter and how “face culture” informs the users’ choices of self-presentation. Using a symbolic interactionist framework, we will then analyse the ways in which conversations on the platform shape users’ online self-presentation. Finally, we will explore Twitter’s verification system and banning practices and how they reflect the platform’s own preferences in terms of users, both through a theoretical perspective and through a playful intervention: an online game that allows players to impersonate a Twitter celebrity.

Personhood in the age of Social Media

As we mentioned, Twitter does not have a real-name policy. This means that users are free to choose their usernames, exposing as much or as little about themselves as they want. Semi-anonymity has been part of the platform since its inception and is an important part of the Twitter experience. In most cases, users don’t show their full name, employing pseudonyms or their first name. This creates a particular atmosphere where individuals have more freedom to express their opinions without fearing the consequences, even when they engage in reprehensible behaviour such as harassment and abuse (Peddinti et al. 2014).

However, we are far from the total anonymity that we can find in places like 4chan. Twitter’s dynamics are closer to what Tuters and Zeeuw (2019) defined as “face culture” online. “Face culture” aims to connect online and offline activities and identities into a coherent whole, tethering us to our “datafied selves” and transforming us into “networked individuals”. The effective output of “face culture” is the construction of an individually narrated story through our recorded interactions on the platforms.

“Face culture” can be seen as an adaptation of modern forms of self-presentation to the datalogical turn. The “reflexive project of the self”, one of the hallmarks of modernity according to sociologist Anthony Giddens, has, under late capitalism, become a form of labour through the branding of the self (Hearn 2008). Online platforms and, in particular, social media, actively encourage their users to engage in practices of self-branding, as we will see later on. For now, we want to point out is that the construction of the self online and it’s inscription in a narrative following the codes of dominant culture industries does not require the existence of a profile features the user’s full names as they are inscribed in the civil registry. Twitter accounts, independently of whether they are anonymous or not, are spaces where users can perform their personhood. 

In order to analyse this performance, we have chosen to follow Goffman’s work on personhood. Goffman’s dramaturgical approach was influenced by symbolic interactionism (SI), a sociological framework that has generally been the most popular way to approach the presentation of the self, online (Robinson 2007; Hogan 2010; Marwick and boyd 2010). This school of thought posits a reflexive construction of personhood through interaction in which agents perform their identity depending on context. Goffman was heavily inspired by theatre in his understanding of personhood and he compared self-representation to the work of an actor on stage:

The stage presents things that are make-believe; presumably life presents things that are real and sometimes not well rehearsed. More important, perhaps, on the stage one player presents himself in the guise of a character to characters projected by other players; the audience constitutes a third party to the interaction—one that is essential and yet, if the stage performance were real, one that would not be there (Goffman  1959, Preface).

He therefore offers us a framework to explore multiple expressions of the self that is different from postmodern interpretations of disembodied “self-ing” (Robinson 2007).

Twitter’s affordances are particularly well suited to the SI framework. Without having a predefined social network, users are free to place themselves in a social field through social interactions with other members of the platform, a field that is shaped by events occurring in and out of the platform. To do so, they have to deploy a series of signifiers that their intended audience will recognise and ascribe to a certain social group. Since Twitter users can have a consistent username and a record of tweets, they don’t have to constantly re-assert their persona. Instead, they are encouraged to create an online persona and enact it throughout their use of the platform. 

Persons and conversations

Following this paradigm, identity on Twitter is constructed through conversations with others (Marwick and boyd 2011). Individuals engage in profile work, strategic self-presentation, guided by social norms. As with Goffman’s conceptualisation of self-presentation, this process creates a tension between revealing and concealing, with the scales tilting towards the latter (Uski and Lampinen 2014). Users tweet based on the judgement of an imagined audience. Identity performance must balance between positive impression management and the need for authenticity, which ultimately comes at the expense of anonymity (Tuters and Zeeuw 2019). The “authentic” of course if always constructed and manufactured in some way, and it is the audience that decides on the authenticity of the content creator. Guided by social media logic (Hedman 2017), users navigate this tension by carefully curating their image, either censoring themselves when it comes to certain topics or strategically balancing targeted tweets with personal revelations (Marwick and boyd 2011).  

Black Twitter offers a particularly good example of how self-presentation is achieved through conversations. Without any corporeal signifiers allowing people to place users in a defined racial category, those who want to participate in Black Twitter must display knowledge of culturally specific forms of communication in order to belong to the community. Sarah Florini (2014) sees this practice as a continuation of the signifyin’ tradition, deeply embedded in African American culture. Florini defines signifyin’ as:

…a genre of linguistic performance that allows for the communication of multiple levels of meaning simultaneously, most frequently involving wordplay and misdirection. […] The very act of signifyin’ is a powerful performance of Black cultural identity because it indexes the genre’s previous instantiations, and the sociocultural contexts in which it was cultivated and practiced.

Although originally an oral tradition, Black Twitter has taken upon itself to define a tacit set of rules codifying written signifyin’. Those rules are embedded in the same life experiences informing oral signifyin’ and act as a proof of “authenticity”, insofar they are meant to be understood only by those who can relate to the experiences they draw upon. This is a prime example of how racialised personhood is enacted digitally through an on-going conversation between members of the same community.

Another example of self-construction on Twitter can be found in the “micro-celebrity” practices adopted by many users. Micro-celebrity implies that anyone can have an audience (or even multiple audiences) that they “strategically maintain through on-going communication and interaction”, but also brings into conflict the desire to have “fans” and a “personal brand” with the desire for pure self-expression and intimate connections (Marwick and boyd 2011). These practices, which include interacting directly with followers, sharing personal anecdotes, appealing to different audiences, and creating an approachable brand, are encouraged and rewarded by the platform.

In a “gig economy”, social media visibility plays a central role in job stability and monetary success. Twitter is therefore significant because it establishes itself as a powerful arbiter of social status and value (Hearn 2017). Professionals use Twitter to network and form “micropublics” (Marshall 2013). We might see Twitter as a more casual LinkedIn or Academia.edu, where media professionals, academics, creative workers, etc. can solicit work, advertise their portfolio, and build relationships. At the intersection of the self and the public emerge identities “that in some way continue to support the wider demands of our work economies” (Marshall 2013). For digital natives entering the workforce, particularly those in the media industries, transpires a transition from “youthful experimentation to a professional identity”, which involves curation and self-censorship and often leads to a stifling online identity expression that constantly needs to be managed to avoid embarrassment (Brandtzaeg and Chaparro-Domínguez 2019).

In the case of celebrities, multiple audiences (fans, intermediaries, celebrities) complicate self-presentation as they each represent a different context. Celebrity practice on Twitter involves the “appearance and performance of backstage access to the famous”. It can be tricky to determine if we are observing an “authentic” individual or a performance. The relationship with the audience is also necessarily different due to the power imbalance that positions them as fans, not friends or acquaintances. Authenticity is conceptualised as an earnest and unpretentious display of a “hidden inner life” (Marwick and boyd 2011).

The verified status emerged in this context of constant struggle for the seemingly contradictory ideas of authenticity and legitimacy. In 2009 a number of celebrities claimed that they had been impersonated on the platform. Twitter answered by introducing a new affordance, a blue tick next to the username of selected individuals that “lets people know that an account of public interest is authentic” (Kanalley 2013). The verified system was supposed to solve the aforementioned tension, but it never quite managed to obtain the necessary legitimacy to do so. We argue instead that it  opened a window to the corporation’s own preferences regarding the type of persons that they want on their platform.

Verified and Banned: Identity markers in a turbulent digital ecosystem

Officially, Twitter’s verified account program has been on hold for two years. However, accounts still get regularly verified. The vetting process is very opaque. In 2018, just 0.05% of Twitter accounts were verified (Kamps 2019). The prized little blue badge has become a status symbol, subject to many running jokes, (ironic) pursuing, but also latent scepticism.

According to Twitter’s help page “a verified badge does not imply an endorsement by Twitter”. Despite this disclaimer, users perceive the blue tick as a declaration of support by the platform, which arbitrarily selects which users belong to the top tier. The omission of certain accounts that would be obvious candidates for verification, like Julian Assange’s, does little to help the company’s claims. In fact, the verified status occupies an increasingly controversial place in the Twitter lore.

Many users, in particular unverified accounts with large followings, see verification as an insult (Bishop 2017; Fairchild 2018). The “Blue Tick Brigade” has become a pejorative term to refer to the supposed “elite” of liberal media professionals, both from the left and the right.  Even people who have been verified perceive this affordance as a symbol of conformity to the platform’s political agenda. The New Yorker’s darling writer Jia Tolentino has herself declared: “they sometimes verify me but I always undo it because I feel like a narc” (Tolentino 2019). This is especially important if we consider the fact that Twitter enables the creation of “blue tick echo chambers”, by allowing verified accounts to only see mentions from other “blue checks”.

Meanwhile, Twitter has faced widespread criticism due to its banning policy. The platform suspends an account when it doesn’t follow its terms of service, such as indulging in spam and abusive behaviour. However, the impartiality of this process can be questioned. For example, tweets containing African American Vernacular English are twice as likely to be labelled offensive compared to others (Sap et al. 2019). The platform also considers “reverse racism” an instance of abusive behaviour, even though its very existence as a legitimate phenomenon has been challenged, and it often refers to ironic or parodic content.

Back in August, Jack Dorsey defended the decision to keep far-right conspiracy theorist and provocateur Alex Jones on the platform, claiming a ban might be perceived as “constructed by our personal views that can swing in any direction” (Dorsey 2018). One month later, the account was finally suspended, then permanently banned.  

In fact, the processes of verification and banning can be viewed as two sides of the same coin, reflecting what the company thinks to be good and inappropriate behaviour. It openly favours journalists and members of the media establishment while punishing users from particular racial backgrounds and with a more acidic outlook of the news.

We decided to explore these politics by using Twitter as the site of a playful, meta-critique of the platform and asking ourselves: How far does one really have to go to get banned? To what extent does Twitter favour certain identities and views? What is the worth of a blue check if the terms of service can change from one day to the other? We have created a “choose your own adventure”-style game, where you can select between two real life-inspired figures (and documented Twitter controversies) and forge your own path to become a celebrity in the platform. You can play the game here.

Conclusion

Twitter’s breakthrough into mainstream consciousness represented a change in the way in which news were consumed and discussed by the general public. It created a space in which users could create their own personhoods by reacting and participating to ongoing conversations. In this essay we have tried to show the mechanisms through which personhood can be created and how Twitter purposefully has implemented some mechanisms to privilege certain types of behavior, typically those associated with a centrist upper-middle class, while punishing others.

Rather than replacing the logic of mass media, Twitter fully embraced it, creating a space where the persons who were likely to feature in the front-cover of any Western national newspaper enjoy the largest corporate support. At a time when online personhood is becoming an increasingly hot topic in the political arena, it is important to remember that platforms play an active role in shaping the self-presentation of their users online and selecting who will have more means to attract attention.

That being said, it would be disingenuous to think that they wield the entire power. The mockeries of the verification system, the popularity of online communities like Black Twitter and the enduring subversive humour in the platform bear witness to the user’s capacity to create new forms of personhood aside from the designs of the corporation. After all, the online self is another site of struggle in the constant tension between programmers and users. 

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