The perks of being 'somebody' online

The web was supposed to be the great equalizer. But, it turns out, the haves and have-nots exist online too. And they're separated by a mark of distinction: verification.

​A month ago, William Shatner got into an unfortunate public spat on Twitter with John Colucci, our social media manager, over why he was verified on Twitter. Shatner argued that recognition should only be given to public figures who are in danger of being impersonated. In Shatner's words, "nobodies should not be verified because it shows a huge flaw in the Twitter system." This spiraled into a big kerfuffle involving several other Twitter users. When our Editor-in-Chief Michael Gorman stepped in to defend Colucci by saying he was verified because he's good at his job, Shatner interpreted that as an abuse of the verification system. Things died down eventually, but Shatner held tight to his belief that verification is a privilege for a select few.

Of course, Twitter isn't the only social network that offers verification. Facebook, too, has a verification system for certain public figures and popular brands and so does Google+. Facebook even released a Mentions app specifically tailored for verified celebrities such as Shatner, who recently posted a rather thorough review of the app on his Tumblr (in sum: He wasn't a fan). These social networks are ostensibly open to all members of the public, allowing us to connect with politicians and celebrities directly. But verification is a reminder that just because everyone's using the same network, that doesn't mean everyone's treated in the same way.

In Shatner's words, "nobodies should not be verified because it shows a huge flaw in the Twitter system."

The concept of verified accounts is fairly recent. Twitter implemented it in 2009, Google+ in 2011, while Facebook only started it in 2012 with verified pages appearing in 2013. It began initially as a way to curb account impersonations by authenticating certain individuals and brands -- essentially a way for people to know that you are who you say you are. And for the most part, it works. For example, I know that @MayorEmanuel is a parody account and not really Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Not only because he likely would never tweet, "Fuck you, you motherfucking time vortex. I fucking love dancing with my friends," but also because it doesn't have an identifiable blue check icon next to his name.

Twitter says it focuses its verification efforts on "highly sought users in music, acting, fashion, government, politics, religion, journalism, media, sports, business and other key interest areas." Similarly, Facebook and Google+ verify profiles and pages that include celebrities, journalists, government officials and popular brands and businesses. Facebook, Twitter and Google+ don't accept verification requests from the general public. We've asked all three for more information as to the exact requirements for verification, but none were willing to cough up much detail, instead pointing us to their respective FAQ pages.

But being verified is more than just having your identity authenticated -- it's also a status symbol. Verified accounts on Twitter get special "perks," like the ability to filter their Mentions and access to analytics like how much "engagement" a particular tweet gets. The aforementioned Facebook Mentions app provides the verified "celebrity" more tools to engage with their fans like Q&A posts, for example. Of course, these perks aren't terribly useful to the average person, but it's certainly an indicator that verified users are somehow more special than everyone else.

... Being verified is more than just having your identity authenticated -- it's also a status symbol.

"Verified accounts were created to solve a practical matter, especially as people couldn't tell if celebrities were the celebrity or someone pretending to be the celebrity," says danah boyd, a social media researcher at Microsoft Research and author of It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens (she prefers her name to be written in lowercase). "Needless to say, this quickly became a status game and people begged to be verified. Unlike followers, which could easily be purchased by third parties running bot networks, verification required Twitter."

The whole idea of a different tier of Twitter or Facebook reserved just for the elite runs counter to the idea of the internet as a democratizer. Similar to how the printing press enabled the mass dissemination of ideas, so too has the internet, but on a much wider scale. Social media in particular has been upheld as a bastion of democracy, as in the case of the Arab Spring, where ordinary citizens used Twitter and Facebook to organize rallies and spread awareness of government atrocities.

Cartoon by Peter Steiner for The New Yorker

But more than that, the reason the internet is seen as the great equalizer is because no one can see what you look like. There's a famous cartoon in The New Yorker with a caption that simply states, "On the internet, nobody knows you're a dog." It's emblematic of this idea that the internet breaks down real-world barriers like gender, race and class, so that all of us are on equal footing. Unfortunately, that simply isn't the case.

"It's a complete myth," says boyd. "The internet reinforces many inequalities, hierarchies and existing social divisions. ... This technology simply mirrors other aspects of life back at us." After all, our brains are not separate from our bodies -- when we go online, we bring with us a whole host of pre-existing prejudices and preconceived notions of how the world works. In It's Complicated, boyd writes this about inequality on social media: "Social media magnifies many aspects of daily life, including racism and bigotry. Some people use social media to express insensitive and hateful views, but others use the same technologies to publicly shame, and in some cases threaten, people who they feel are violating social decorum."

"No site does the work of democracy. It is people who do that through technologies, not technologies in and of themselves."

When we ask boyd if anonymous forums like Reddit offer a more even playing field than other social networks, she says, "No site does the work of democracy. It is people who do that through technologies, not technologies in and of themselves." Jen Schradie, a sociologist at UC Berkeley, adds to this, telling us that the poor and working class are much less likely to be online in the first place, so there's already a built-in class disparity. "What we are left with is a digital production gap," she says. "The internet in general, and social media in particular, is dominated by the elite. ... The verified/non-verified divide is just the tip of the iceberg."

As is evidenced by Shatner's reaction to some of us being verified, he certainly believes in that divide -- that those who are verified are somehow more privileged than those who are not, and they should be deserving of that privilege. As a verified user on Twitter myself, I'll admit that it's nice to be deemed worthy of the status, if only because it adds legitimacy and credibility to what I do.

But being verified doesn't make me special. It doesn't make me better than anyone who's not verified -- I don't get preferential treatment at restaurants and I don't get to skip ahead in line at the airport. Further, you don't need a verified checkmark to have credibility. Dick Costolo, the CEO of Twitter, does not have a verified account. I was unverified on Twitter for years and I'm still unverified on Facebook. Not having that little checkmark did not and does not impact how I do my work. I'm sure the majority of people I interact with on a daily basis have no idea what in the world being verified on Twitter means. As Colucci himself mentioned in a response to Shatner, the verification status is "just for work, and outside of that it really means nothing."

And yet, the prestige associated with that silly little verification icon persists. At least among the elite few who know what it means.