Not long ago, I started seeing people on twitter with blue check marks next to their name. Back when, Twitter used these marks to verify that a user was who she claimed to be, so that others could distinguish the real twitterer from parody or poseur. Of course, the person who needed the blue check would be someone whom others would want to identify as the real deal.
Then, the twitter gods shifted their goal posts a bit, using the blue check to signify that someone was “important,” worthy of the validation of those undeserving of a blue check. Some blue-check twitterers were people without a great many followers. Some were users whose twits weren’t particularly insightful or interesting. Some were downright dolts about whom no one cared. Suddenly, however, they were important people because they sought a blue check from twitter and were validated. If you weren’t one of them, at least you now knew who mattered (and it wasn’t you).
Then there were the people with blue checks who held positions of prominence. Whether they were writers for important soapboxes or judges for high courts, movie stars, the professor and Maryanne, you were now merely one degree of separation away from them. And they were no longer isolated within their bubble, but could collect followers, likes, retwits, to prove to themselves they were relevant and adored.
What’s curious about these new rules of who matters and who does not is that there was little concern about whether they had anything thoughtful or useful to say. Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett* has almost 95,000 followers on twitter. How many of them are familiar with his rulings is a mystery, but they know he’s really Justice Willett because he’s got the blue check and twits stuff like this:
Tried to pass.
— Justice Don Willett (@JusticeWillett) August 23, 2017
It’s cute and kinda funny. It’s hardly deep or illuminating. You’re unlikely to get more than a legal homily out of it, but then, it’s twitter, and isn’t it just fine to use it to post about your kid’s braces? It certainly is, and Justice Willett is just as entitled to have a little fun on social media as anyone else. Even if you would hate his views as a judge, it’s cool for hundreds of people to heart his funny twit because he’s a bigly judge.
If someone else had twitted the same thing, would it receive the same attention? If Justice Willett twitted something serious about a critical societal issue, would it be as liked as a cute twit? Does Justice Willet recognize this, and put in effort to twit cuteness that will offend none of his followers, and never legal ideas of any depth that will offend and outrage, or even intellectually challenge, any of his followers? Are his followers smart enough to ask? Do they care?
There are brilliant twits. Witty or insightful, sometimes cutting so sharply that they can turn trending stupidity on its head. They may come from an account of someone who is important or an account no one has ever heard of, no blue check anywhere in sight. They rely on no attributed cred from the twitter gods, nor even ascribed cred from the high office held by the source. They’re just . . . smart.
But the masses don’t swarm to follow them because they aren’t on TV or don’t allow you to be close to greatness. And the blue-check folks must be very careful not to twit anything that alienate their fan base, whether by challenging someone on their team or not adoring ideas that appeal to their followers. Perhaps they have something brilliant to say, but would they risk offending their fans?
In 2010, Venkat Balasubramani wrote about the Cult of Positivity at his blog, Spam Notes. which is no longer there. It was a brilliantly insightful post about how validation on the internet has pushed us to moderate thought for the sake of gathering vapid friends.
I don’t begrudge Justice Willett twtting whatever the hell he pleases, but his cute twits are no more significant because he’s a Texas Supreme Court justice than those of any random twitter of cute twits. On the other hand, I might follow him if he twitted challenging ideas and insights. A blue check mark isn’t reason enough to give a shit. He’s kinda funny, but not that funny.
And if all you’ve got is a blue check mark, then you’re only kidding yourself if you think you matter. Nobody wants to impersonate you.
*Justice Willett is used as an example, not because there is anything particularly problematic about his twittering. He was brought to my attention as a very controversial person of prominence who might have something deeply thoughtful and challenging to add, but who instead twits occasional platitudes, funny pics and inoffensive memes. To paraphrase President Bush, a twit is a terrible thing to waste.