screen time

Welcome to $8chan

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images

On Wednesday, November 9, it became possible to buy, for $8 a month, a blue checkmark for your Twitter account. According to Elon Musk, who has made the symbol of verification central to his takeover of Twitter, these blue checks will entitle users to “priority” placement in replies, mentions, and search, which he says should reduce spam and scams and also make Twitter some much-needed cash.

Twitter verification originated as a solution to Twitter’s early issues with celebrity impersonation, then gradually became a complicated status marker on the platform. Now, in Musk’s words, it is available to “the people.” At last.

Also on Wednesday, November 9, a Twitter account called “Twítter,” with a nice blue checkmark next to it, tweeted that, actually, anyone with crypto or NFT holdings could get Twitter Blue, and a verification badge, for free. All they had to do was click a provided link and sign in with their Twitter wallets. It was retweeted tens of thousands of times. Elsewhere, a verified account with the username LeBron James — handle @kingjamez, not @kingjames — announced that it was “officially requesting a trade” and thanked the Los Angeles Lakers for all their support over the years. This, too, was reposted thousands of times, in many cases by people who assumed it was real.

A verified account purporting to be Rudy W. Giuliani also had a message for its followers: “I’d like to announce I shidded.”

A verified “Tony Blair” reminisced with a blue-check “George W. Bush” about “killing Iraqis,” while a verified “Joe Biden” tweeted about jacking off. There was a fake Trump, of course. A verified “Nintendo of America” had a very special message from Mario:

A blue-checked “Eli Lilly and Company” made insulin free. “Chiquita” announced a coup. “Lockheed Martin” tweeted it was halting sales to “Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United States,” while “Tesla” offered 10,000 vehicles — “the most advanced explosive devices on the market” — to support Ukraine.

Trolls and scammers were, and are, having a field day. On Twitter and Mastodon, users converged on a coinage:

The name refers to 8chan, a notorious anonymous troll board and erstwhile home of QAnon — a true cesspit where people can be anyone or say anything. It’s apt. (Credit where credit’s due, maybe: The earliest usage I could find was in a little-noticed reply to news of Musk’s plan posted on November 2. Good job, “Dock Ellis [Paradis].”)

Early on the morning of November 10, Elon Musk sent two urgent emails to staff. One outlined the “dire” economic situation ahead, ended remote work, and said he wanted half of Twitter’s future revenue to come from subscriptions. The other, according to Bloomberg, was shorter: “Over the next few days, the absolute top priority is finding and suspending any verified bots/trolls/spam.” (All the above-mentioned accounts have since been banned.) Publicly, of course, Musk struck a different tone.

This was, practically speaking, the first day in which Musk’s changes to Twitter actually started to bite. He had laid off much of Twitter’s staff, including people whose work helped prevent these sorts of things. On Thursday, Yoel Roth, Twitter’s head of Trust and Safety, abruptly left. Its chief information-security officer, chief privacy officer, and chief compliance officer also walked.

With Twitter Blue, Musk had put up for sale whatever meaning and credibility Twitter verification had accrued — it was a liquidation. It recalled Twitter’s quaint early days when fake celebrity accounts got large followings tweeting memes. It was, in various ways, starting from scratch.

It was alternately funny and alarming. Twitter verification before Musk was at least intended to verify that users were who they said they were, preventing various sorts of obvious harm: scams, hoaxes, political disinformation, harassment, and reputational damage. For now, Musk’s version of verification only verifies that the user has access to $8. This struck many informed observers as a shockingly naïve change with incredibly obvious consequences, many of which immediately came to pass. They were right but could be underestimating the scope of the coming changes. Musk made blue checks into a joke, and his users returned the favor.

The $8chan bonanza is more than an outburst or a mere failure to grasp basic principles of content moderation by the world’s most prominent forum admin. It represents a real step toward a Twitter that Musk says he wants: a pay-to-post platform; one sort of hierarchical communications platform replaced with another one more to his liking. It’s a Twitter in which every user with anything to gain from the platform is effectively converted into a paying advertiser, or else they get banished into the void. “Over time, maybe not that long of time, when you look at mentions, replies, whatnot, the default will be to look at verified,” Musk said in a chat with advertisers on Wednesday. “You can still look at unverified, just as in your Gmail or whatever you can still look at the probable spam folder.”

Musk has also said that users verified under the old regime — which in many cases demanded real proof of identification — will eventually be forced to pay or lose their badges. He hinted that actual identity verification could come back, for some accounts, maybe, but insisted that the old version was “corrupt.” As of Friday morning, paid verification appears to be paused. There has been no announcement from the company regarding this change, but Musk did post this:

It’s been a mess, clearly, but the prospect of renewed interest in a Musk-led Twitter has figured into his pitch to advertisers as well. It has also demonstrated, in Musk, a desire and a will to actually gut-renovate Twitter, according to his specific fixations, at great risk to the company’s existing users and advertisers. Early post-Musk Twitter can feel like a big joke, but the sheer strangeness of the situation as well as Musk’s public flailing conceal a possibility that has been consistently underrated throughout his approach to and purchase of the platform: Twitter’s new owner is willing to sacrifice much of what exists, whatever he thinks it is, in order to attempt to build the thing he wants, or thinks he and his creditors need. The second part won’t be easy or predictable. The first part is absolutely within his grasp.

Welcome to $8chan