How to Build (and Destroy) a Social Network

On a perfect spring day in 2017, I joined a gathering of right-wing internet trolls in Austin, Texas. They’d arranged the meetup to support the Infowars founder and conspiracist Alex Jones during his child-custody trial; I was reporting on all this and ended up in a stilted conversation with a prolific 4chan poster. We realized that we were born only a few miles apart from each other in Ohio, which apparently came as a shock. I thought all you blue checks were from New York City or California, he said with no trace of irony.

That was the first time I’d ever been referred to in the physical world as a “blue check.” Technically, the term meant that I was somebody who’d been verified on Twitter, but it was more familiar to me as a derogatory bit of internet slang. Sometime in the late 2010s, the moniker became a handy stand-in for a large class of mostly left-leaning journalists, celebrities, activists, and other personalities on Twitter. Blue checks were supposedly privileged and out of touch, like the “liberal elites” who preceded them.

They were also, to the chagrin of Twitter’s populist and reactionary right wing, influential. To rail against the blue checks was to rail against the media establishment and all its gatekeeping and groupthink. Blue checks, the detractors argued, were Twitter’s most cherished and protected class—unfairly amplified in the platform’s algorithms and even sheltered from the cries of the unwashed masses thanks to their ability to filter out the non-checkmarked from their feeds.

Now the roles are reversed. Under a new approach to the Twitter Blue subscription service dreamed up by Twitter CEO Elon Musk, users can now pay $8 a month for that coveted check, among other exclusive features like more visibility in conversations and search. Meanwhile, the “legacy” types are as unverified as the day they were born, at least until they pony up.

Twitter Blue may be boneheaded as a revenue scheme, but it excels as a case study in how grappling for status can ruin a social network—especially as a point of contrast to a new social network that the most online among us are flocking to. I’ve spent the past week clicking between two tabs: In one is Twitter, which is visibility suffocating under the weight of Musk’s enormous ego and a series of awful managerial decisions; in the other is Bluesky, a decentralized, invite-only clone of Twitter, which has exploded in popularity in just a few days, attracting celebrities, politicians, and a legion of beloved, extremely online shitposters. Status across social networks is always in flux, but the past few weeks have felt like a controlled experiment in how social capital is won and lost and how online communities respond to upheaval.

[Read: Elon Musk revealed what Twitter always was]

Social media has always been, at heart, a big status game. The most successful social platforms are the ones that allow people to efficiently gain access to a larger network and accrue status inside it. The classic example is Facebook, which initially tied platform access to a Harvard email address. As the technologist Eugene Wei wrote in a seminal 2019 blog post, Facebook “drafted off of one of the most elite cultural filters in the world. It’s hard to think of many more powerful slingshots of elitism.”

Although the filter eventually disappears as more and more people gain access to the platform, new hierarchies emerge. Even harassment campaigns and arguments over content moderation are fundamentally about status: Those with status determine who and what content is amplified, thereby conveying what type of behavior is worthy of the community’s respect. Status is linked to credibility and authenticity. And nothing typifies and communicates credibility and authenticity like a little blue checkmark that says, This person is real and notable.

“Status is about a reputation—about what a specific group thinks of you,” Cecilia Ridgeway, a sociologist and the author of Status, told me. “Because of that fact, you can try to claim status, but you can’t seize it. Status is given, not purchased.” Like me, Ridgeway sees Musk’s verification experiment as a struggle between the platform’s new and old elites. Previously verified users fumed at having to pay a mercurial billionaire for something that was once free, while the people who most resented those users were hungry to pay up. Peculiar status tiers began to form. Rejecting the blue checkmark quickly became cooler than having one. And Twitter Blue users mused conspiratorially about why unverified users were seeing better engagement on their tweets. Something was off: They’d paid to be important, but they weren’t.

Ridgeway compared the chaos of the past few weeks to the social upheavals between old-money and new-money elites. “If new elites are buying status markers, what will happen is that old elites will declare those are no longer the markers.” A quick spin through Twitter bears out Ridgeway’s theory. Legacy verified users now post ironic memes about the groupthink and obnoxiousness of the newly minted blue-check crowd.

im sorry for saying this:

being verified on twitter means nothing now

in fact, it’s cringe

i like that im not verified

when i see blue check marks, my mind rejects them

they have lost all meaning and are effectively useless

— Sam Sheffer (@samsheffer) May 2, 2023

blue checks 🙄

— tom mckay (@thetomzone) May 2, 2023

It’s hard not to see Bluesky and its recent evolution as an opposition movement to Musk’s version of Twitter. The platform revolves around replicating the joy of Twitter’s early days: the informality, the in-jokes, the feeling of familiarity, and an overall lack of toxic users. My timeline is chaotic, but earnestness abounds. The decisions about content-moderation issues such as blocking and banning are happening in real time and, for now, are driven by the values of the community. At present, those values seem to be to build the polar opposite of whatever it is Musk has turned Twitter into. At its small size, it’s a lovely place—one user described it as a poster’s “Valhalla.”

Bluesky is also an attempt at status migration. Currently, it is filled with former Twitter power users who are rightfully fed up with being on a platform whose official policies seem intended to troll them, open them up to harassment, and make their experience less enjoyable. Status is about respect, and it’s clear that most of Bluesky’s users have left a platform they feel does not respect them. It’s exciting to watch new status relationships evolve. Users with a penchant for shitposting, for example, and those who embody the puckish spirit of the early internet are the first platform celebrities. Those who have come aboard to harass or repeat old culture-war fights are pariahs.

Just being a Bluesky user is a potent status signal. As an invite-only platform that is stingy about doling out new golden tickets, Bluesky is an exclusive community. The platform tracks who invited whom, and it recently announced that content-moderation decisions may take into consideration the chain of invites—if you invite trolls who go on to break the rules, you could be punished. This adds a reputational component to the platform. Bluesky users are motivated to invite high-quality, high-status people, which means that invites confer significant status on the recipients.

Ex-tweeters (including myself) who have found community on Bluesky seem to think of the platform as a refuge of sorts. I explained this to Ridgeway, who made a different comparison. “It’s like the country club,” Ridgeway told me: “A place where you can go and be with your peers. Everyone knows the credible people belong in this exclusive space.”

[Read: Blue check marks were always shameless]

The country-club metaphor might rankle some Bluesky users, who are trying to build an inclusive community, but Ridgeway argues the important part of Bluesky is that it allows for a reclamation of status among Twitter expats.

“In studies of well-being, having status among your peer group is one of the most important contributing factors,” she told me. “Ultimate status comes from influencing broad opinion,” she said, “but as a daily form of healthy, happy living, people just want status in their small corner of the world among their peers.” Essentially, we all want a place where we are known and respected and credibly seen.

Ridgeway’s encapsulation strikes me as a perfect description of why social media makes so many of us feel miserable: We are thrust into a competition for broad-based status, trying to win the approval and respect of large, mercurial audiences of mostly strangers. The game is exhausting, even misery inducing, in part because the scale of exposure brought about by social media is unnatural. Ridgeway’s thesis also helps explain the joy I’ve seen and experienced using a small, nascent platform. Thanks to its scale and values, Bluesky’s status game feels—for now—like a healthy one.

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