How Twitter should manage identity
"If Musk is a king, he should know what a real king would do."
As Elon Musk has recently discovered, managing speech and identity is hard. But he probably knew that. It’s important to note that his first three rockets blew up, too.
Among effective people, most failures result from distorted perceptions of reality. In every society in history in which we can identify the difference, the most common failure-inducing perceptual disorder among rightists is that they refuse to see that they either differ in any way from all leftists, or share anything with all other rightists. Often they do not even understand that they themselves are fundamentally rightists. (Usually the optimal strategy is to understand—but not to admit.)
As a result, rightists (a) try to use strategies that only work for leftists; (b) fail to work effectively with other rightists; and (c), therefore, lose.
This depressing pattern repeats across history in every conflict between left and right. We see it again in Elon Musk’s first attempt to monetize Twitter’s reputation capital, which ended hilariously by merely diluting it. Still, monopolies are resilient.
The blue check is an indicator of verified notability. A blue check is a lord among the peasants. Hierarchy is how Twitter works. Hierarchy is how Twitter will always work. The hierarchy of Twitter today is a corrupt abomination. (My company got verified in 2015 because we threw a good party at which a drunken Twitter employee promised…)
What is the right strategy against a diseased hierarchy? The leftist strategy is to try to abolish hierarchy—healthy or diseased. The rightist strategy is to nourish hierarchy if it is healthy, treat it if it is diseased, and grow it if it has room to grow. Which it does—even on Twitter.
Jack Cade or Charles I
Musk’s idea of selling blue checks for $8 a month failed instantly, because he was attacking an oligarchy in a democratic direction. This would have been proper for a peasant. Since he is, obviously, a king, he has to spin the rocket in monarchical space.
Otherwise he is a cat who is teaching himself to bark. He is Charles I, not Jack Cade. Whether Jack plays Charles or Charles plays Jack, the result is comedy at best.
The bluechecks are an oligarchy—or, to flatter more, an aristocracy or even meritocracy. To oppose this aristocracy by saying there should be “no peasants and no lords” is a clear and obvious use of democratic energy—a historical echo across four centuries of Shakespeare’s “let’s kill all the lawyers.”
But Jack Cade is Shakespeare’s villain. Until we can summon up a frame in which it is right and proper to smite Cade, we have made no progress in our rocket equation. The whole American tradition, descended as it is from the regicide side of the English Civil War, is deeply and constitutionally committed to “no peasants and no lords.”
And it is deeply and constitutionally opposed to the monarchical opposite of “let’s kill all the lawyers”: James I’s “the king is above the law.” If the king is not above the law, there is no monarchy. To a rightist Jacobite, Charles I lost his head because he caved on this point—and got instead the rule of lawyers.
So Shakespeare is to the right of the whole American tradition. The greatest writer of all time stands outside the bubble of the modern. Can the whole American tradition be… wrong? Impossible. It would be like Newton being wrong about the apple.
Yet if we can swallow our patriotic pride—hard enough for a real American; almost impossible for a hyphenated-American like Musk, who came here for our values—we can ask: what would Shakespeare do? Or more prosaically, what would Charles I do?
The democratic ideas of “equality” and “free speech” were of course absent from these monarchist minds. Yet nor had they any sympathy for an oligarchic rule of lawyers. If Musk is a king—he should know what a real king would do.
Selling titles of nobility
Charles I would instantly recognize what Musk is doing. He is selling titles of nobility. This classic monarchical revenue model was old when Khufu was a little boy.
But then: Charles I would never sell—no, rent—baronetcies for eightpence a month to any chud in Kent with a credit card. True—Charles got his head cut off. Not always the most effective leader. Read all about it. Still, Charles I would have had himself drawn and quartered before he shipped a product like Musk’s $8 verification. Sad!
Whereas Jack Cade and his foul peasant crew, getting their lice-ridden paws on the Great Seal of the Realm (a sort of early private key), might well have abused it this way. Not killing all the lawyers—making every man jack a lawyer. If he buy the stamp, for Jack and his men shall have ale and beef!
Cade, adopting this democratic strategy, is monetizing the aggregate value of the Great Seal with high time preference. Typical peasant behavior. His strategy is not to rule England, just to loot London—to guzzle as much as he can before armored knights hack him apart with sharp blades. Allah be praised, the gun is not yet a thing.
A monarchist aristocrat, like Charles or Shakespeare, understood that the advantage of monarchy is efficient government with low time preference. The mission of a king is the same as the mission of a CEO: to build long-term capital and harvest its yield, shearing his sheep but never skinning them.
The capital of a king is the land, people and buildings of his nation. The capital of Twitter is a building, some office furniture, and… goodwill. Twitter needs to earn revenue, but Elon Musk is not Jack Cade. He is here to build capital, not devour it. Hopefully he will not keep lighting his cigars with goodwill—that is, reputation.
But what is this magical substance, reputation?
Twitter is a reputation company
The capital of Twitter is its reputation and (indirectly) the reputation of its users.
Even its mission as a truth company is subordinate to its mission as a reputation company. Its only (financial) reason to tell only the truth is that telling only the truth maximizes long-term reputation—if not always short-term reputation.
But Twitter’s users have reputations, too. They tweet to maintain and improve those reputations. The company shares in the capital they create. This should be a win-win.
The way for Twitter to monetize these reputations is to make them more essential. The more its users need their blue checks, the more Twitter can charge them. This is especially true for brands.
If Twitter brand verification is essential to the operation of the New York Times, then $8 a month is not the right price for the Times’s bluecheck. $800,000 a month seems more right. Every Times reporter will also need their own bluecheck. This will be paid by the Times. It should cost about $80,000 a year—like a Bloomberg subscription.
Monopolies have the power of price discrimination, and taxation is the ultimate price discrimination. A variant of taxation in the ancient world was the liturgy, in which rich citizens were brutally ganked by the taxman in exchange for honors and status. Most of the cities of the later Roman Empire were financed by liturgies. Musk might find it pleasant to inhabit the other side of this kind of nonconsensual transaction.
Identity as a core competence
The blue check means and must always mean what it means now—verified notability. There is no useful way to mess with this. But there is more to reputation than a single bit. Once you are in the reputation business, why not go deeper in?
Treating notability as a core competence would mean a clear and transparent process for eligibility. The application process should be public and transparent. It does not need to be free (but see below). There are three kinds of identities that can be notable: real names, brands, and pseudonyms.
Wikipedia has done an excellent job of defining human notability. To get a real name checked blue, a user should have to meet something like the Wikipedia criterion. For brands—companies, bands, etc—a similar constraint can be devised. Notable users should not be able to edit their name or even their biography, which has to be true, without approval.
Pseudonyms are also often notable. Famous pseudonyms should be able to get a check—Bronze Age Pervert should have one (and should want one). He should not even need to dox himself with Twitter—he can be verified cryptographically a la Keybase.
And just as there are multiple levels of nobility, there are multiple levels of notability. A baronet is not a baron, a baron is not a count, and a count is not a duke. Twitter can add enormous value by manually reviewing human notability, just as the Guide Michelin adds enormous value by manually reviewing restaurant quality. The application process should be public and transparent. It does not need to be free.
Rigorous standards, retroactively applied to existing users, increase the net value of the reputation capital of these little checks. Getting verified should feel as good, as important, as exclusive, and as deserved as winning a Michelin star. An unverified user can be banned by an AI—a verified user deserves due process of law.
Notability should carry more than symbolic value—it should have social utility. For instance, by default, anyone notable should be able to DM anyone else of a lesser or equal notability. If all celebs on Twitter could freely DM any other celeb—or indeed any unverified peasant—they would stick to the platform like glue. Brand notability should also carry magical powers of communication—this is what advertising is.
Moreover, notability is not the world’s only formal credential. There is a whole world of verifiable reputation badges—credentials like PhDs and MDs; jobs conferring prestige, like professor or (gasp) journalist (most of the journalist bluechecks do not reflect any significant notability, but should just be badges); even Michelin stars. The Twitter of a three-star chef should absolutely show three stars; no one else’s should.
Charging for identity
Establishing a dominant position in identity will create enormous monopoly pricing power. Charging for identity should be avoided for as long as possible. It retards the monopoly acquisition process. Gaining a monopoly is a capital investment. Investing in capital is what companies do.
A dominant position in identity means that all human beings are primarily identified by a Twitter identifier. This can be a real name—identity verification does not have to be restricted to the notable. It can be a synthetic cryptonym or even a phone number. Twitter can extend and embrace all other existing identity systems.
In particular, to win in identity, Twitter DMs need to compete with phone-number messaging systems like iMessage, Telegram, WhatsApp and Signal. Twitter can win here if it has more metadata—especially, reputation metadata.
The weird thing about phone-number social networking is that a number is not bound to any formal metadata. The process of exchanging numbers is informal and human. As a result, these tools work well only for our informal human circle—even getting a text from a company is an odd process involving weird 5-digit no-reply numbers.
The relationship of identity and communication is fundamental. To talk, publicly or privately, you have to know who or what you are talking to. A bot or a doctor? Rando or celeb? A real NYT reporter, or an impostor? If Twitter has this data, everyone will prefer to communicate on its network.