Who is Verified on Twitter, and Why Does it Matter?

by Shanley Kane on August 18th, 2016

Veve Jaffa’s article on Twitter verification earlier this week got me thinking. With new, expanded Verification policies (misleadingly) painted as an anti-online harassment strategy — inasmuch as Verified users have had access to improved filters and safety features — it’s an opportune moment to think about the politics of WHO gets “status” on social media, and what it tells us about how social platforms function.

So: who is Verified on Twitter? I put out a quick inquiry online, and was excited when @_anti_climacus began a preliminary inquiry into the gender distribution of Verified users. The test used the public streaming API to collect a large sample of Verified accounts, and the Genderize REST API — which lets researchers approximate gender data by comparing first names against a large database — to come up with some initial stats. In the end, the test sampled 21,000 Verified accounts, and the results are concerning: to start, many more men are verified than women, with women making up only about a third of individual Verified users, and just 20% of all Verified accounts (including brand/corporate accounts). Of course, this also indicates that a huge number of verified accounts are not people at all, but brands, institutions, mainstream media and corporations:

Bar graph showing a break-down of Twitter Verified users. Graph reflects 9180 brands, 7963 men and 4333 women out of a sample of 21,476.

Of course, it should be noted that this data is from early and rough investigation; it should be taken as preliminary inquiry only, indicating the need for more rigorous research — particularly, research across larger number of accounts, research that incorporates race, sexuality as well as a more expansive view of gender, and research with a more rigorous process of design and peer review. However, this early data is completely consistent with a platform that has constantly prioritized white men and corporate users over marginalized people. 

Who gets verification status is important, because status is just one of many ways that large social platforms shape our attention and influence the public based on their own value system. Specifically, Verification is tied to increased visibility on the platform in myriad ways: One, the users who are generally recommended upon signing up/logging in to Twitter are Verified accounts. Further, on many large/mainstream media sites, Verified users are more likely to be cited, quoted and/or interviewed in news articles, trend pieces, listicles, etc. It’s likely that Verified users are able to grow their audience more quickly due to public perception of the “Verified” badge; for privileged users, this audience is often tied to an increase in influence, economic opportunity, access to positions of power, etc. In the media, entertainment, fashion, tech and other industries, status symbols — even those as seemingly arbitrary as a blue check — do contribute to an individual’s perceived social value… and, in turn, to their professional support system, socioeconomic status, career trajectory, and other material effects.

Considering Verification has been in place for seven full years, we can’t underestimate the cumulative effects over time of a system that has consistently verified some users over all other users. This is particularly poignant when we see how Twitter’s growth has been driven by marginalized, unaffiliated women (as Shaadi Devereaux highlights in “Why These Tweets Are Called My Back”); Black Twitter (as Lesli-Ann Lewis notes, “Twitter has become a cultural force largely because of the clout, reach and wit of its Black users”); and various movements and disruptions led by marginalized activists. Yet, these are the users consistently cut out of consideration, protection, respect, and status by Twitter the company; yet another way tech business models are built on the labor of marginalized people.

Some might argue that the current demographics of Verified users are irrelevant, reflecting past Verification processes that are currently being replaced by an expanded application system. However, these arguments ignore the fact that Verification remains at Twitter’s discretion… even though now more people can apply, getting the check still requires meeting Twitter’s criteria. Thus, the new system doesn’t necessarily represent any departure from the prior value system; in fact, the newly opened verification process suggests that, contrary to any change in underlying logics, this system just makes applying those same values more efficient and scalable for Twitter’s staff. If the value system that Twitter employs to determine Verified status has remained unchanged, we can expect privileged men and brands to continue to be the primary recipients and beneficiaries of status.

Certainly, ongoing reports from victims of severe harassment having their applications rejected indicates that victims of abuse aren’t at the center of these changes. So, if not increasing safety, what then are the goals of Twitter’s newly expanded verification? As we can see in preliminary data, a large portion of Verified users are brands; an expanded program would suggest that brand management, monetization through advertising, and the continued reification of corporations over people is part-and-parcel. This is consistent with Twitter’s investment in tooling, which has offered advanced features to, for example, social media teams working on corporate accounts, while individuals targeted by abuse on the platform are left with no recourse. The predominance of Verified brands on Twitter further brings its reputation as a progressive space into question; while eager to capitalize on its purported role in social movements, an ongoing focus on advertisers, brands and corporate users while neglecting marginalized ones shows that this trend is more the result of activist ingenuity and subversion more than intentional design. With Twitter’s growth practically stalled, one would think they’d turn their focus to individual users rather than brands, lest the “free speech wing of the free speech party” become a deserted hell-hole of brands trolling each other for inclusion in a plagiarized Buzzfeed listicle… Then again, no one asked me. (They never do…)  

More than anything, preliminary Verified demographics shows the importance of looking holistically at diversity in tech. While diversity in tech efforts tend to focus narrowly on the full-time employees of tech companies, that leaves out huge swathes of the picture, especially dynamics in the user base. In the case of Twitter, we must look at user demographics, we must look at the demographics of abusers vs targets, who is influential on the platform and who is rewarded on the platform (not always the same thing), and who is Verified. Especially as the verification program expands and Twitter ups its investment in Verification as a core strategy, it’s particularly worth monitoring if Verification status is distributed in a fair and equitable way that recognizes and values the diversity of its users.

PS: If anyone is interested in launching a more rigorous investigation of Verified demographics on Twitter, please get in touch!