Twitter outdid itself last week. Tweets—not broadcast news, not Facebook, not the New York Times front page nor NPR—proved far and away the most relevant way to track developments out of Ferguson, Mo. following the fatal police shooting of unarmed black teen Michael Brown. But just days after Brown was senselessly gunned down by a police officer, the most relevant platform for realtime social news, was hard at work rendering itself irrelevant.
In an effort to encourage its verified users to engage with one another, Twitter announced mid last week that its verified users would get a new set of tools that lets them screen out conversations from non-verified users. The system essentially builds an underclass into the most democratic social network ever made, by giving its verified users preferential treatment.
Verification is not currently open to the general public. Learn more about the types of accounts that are eligible: http://t.co/gWFQdG2c
— Verified Accounts (@verified) August 7, 2012
Twitter users with massive followings have more chatter to sort through to have meaningful interactions, but toggling off the unverified majority is the worst solution imaginable, risking it all to improve the user experience of an elite subset of users. If verified users only pay attention to verified tweets, the loudest voices on the social network risk drowning out the rest.
With the voices of unverified users hushed, we may never have stumbled onto some of the most important tweets out of the social network last week. People like St. Louis Alderman Antonio French, universally regarded to be a key figure in the Ferguson demonstrations, might never have bubbled up to the surface. French wasn’t a verified user as of two days ago.
— Antonio French (@AntonioFrench) August 16, 2014
Over 100,000 users follow French, so it’s understandable he’d want a little help sorting the tidal waves of replies and retweets crashing against his account. But instead of drawing a line between verified and unverified users, Twitter could just improve lists. Lists, which allow users to create curated pools of the people they follow, could be a far more robust answer to a long over issue—and one that preserves the democratic spirit that makes Twitter special among social networks.
When it comes to getting verified, Twitter’s policy is as opaque as it is mercurial. The verification process began as an indicator of an official account, a feature most relevant for celebrity users who want to have their brand or identity from being hijacked. Now it’s an arbitrary marker of status, doled out to whoever Twitter seems to see fit. Some users are verified for having droves of followers, others for being part of a larger team that falls in Twitter’s good graces, others for who knows what reason.
Some publications—we’re looking at you, Buzzfeed—fall within Twitter’s scope of verification, in spite of their questionable editorial track records. Just about everyone over at Buzzfeed gets Twitter’s stamp of approval—including notoriously pitiable plagiarist “Buzzfeed Benny.” Meanwhile, the New York Times team on the ground in Ferguson doesn’t. (The Daily Dot staff isn’t verified either.)
To the writers who were not properly attributed and anyone who ever read my byline, I am sincerely sorry. http://t.co/WpkZIi4g9k
— Benny (@bennyjohnson) July 26, 2014
— Julie Bosman (@juliebosman) August 18, 2014
This week’s outrage over the events in Ferguson came to a nationwide flashpoint across social platforms as Instagram snapshots and Vine videos captured the scene on the ground and tweets tracked events in realtime.
In a situation like Ferguson, the most powerful voices are often the ones that struggle to be heard. Unverified Twitter user @TheePharoah livetweeted Brown’s death, but his account of the events took an entire week to surface. In the immediate aftermath, local news reporters were the first to the scene, but very few local news affiliates are verified by Twitter.
There couldn’t be a more vital time to reflect on the voices that social networks make heard. We don’t need to amplify voices that are already shouting—for once, we need to shut up and listen.