The coveted checkmark debuted on social media profiles when Twitter introduced its verification process in 2009, but 10 years later, users are still trying to reach an understanding of how the process works for some platforms.
The latest flare-up was in September when there was a veritable earthquake in the YouTube community after the platform announced planned changes to its verification process that would have removed checkmarks from a number of previously verified accounts.
Following intense blowback, the Google-owned video site reversed course and said previously verified accounts would retain their status. Going forward, though, YouTube said it would rely on a more subjective verification process than simply greenlighting accounts that surpassed 100,000 followers.
Instagram and Twitter also have their own approaches to verifying users, but the uncertainty about the processes are threatening influencers and the brands they rely on for partnerships. The reasoning from these companies is, in theory, somewhat clear-cut: They use verification to identify authentic users and weed out impostors. For brands, this uncertainty means the content creators they want to partner with don’t always have platform-provided tools to prove they are legitimate.
“Right now, brands out there are screaming from the rooftops that they want transparency, they want to work with creators that are legitimate, that don’t use black-hat methods to grow a following or have a high percentage of fake followers,” said Ricky Ray Butler, CEO of Branded Entertainment Network, which executes brand integration campaigns with content creators.
YouTube’s previous approach to verification was one of the more transparent, but its recent change meant platform creators “went from having somewhat of an understanding to not having anything” to work off of, Butler explained.
On other platforms, the process has long been opaque. Twitter, which has more than 336,000 verified accounts, suspended the process of applying for verification indefinitely in March 2018 but still verifies certain well-connected users. On Instagram, anyone can apply for a blue checkmark, but the platform’s focus is to identify celebrities and influencers who are at a high risk of being impersonated.
Charles Porch, Instagram’s head of global partnerships, said the impetus for verifying certain accounts was because users were having trouble telling the difference between authentic and fan accounts. Verified accounts make up only a “small fraction” of the site’s total users, an Instagram spokesperson said.
“When I started, influencers were bloggers,” Porch said. “The blogosphere became the influencer community. These people are the start for a new generation that’s Instagram-first and lives on Instagram. It’s how they discover the people they love. This group is getting bigger and bigger.”
Verification is intended to underscore authenticity, not demarcate approval for the content of those checkmarked accounts. But this distinction has been lost on some users. A YouTube spokesperson said about 30% of its users thought the checkmark was an endorsement of the content, which prompted them to rethink their system. Twitter faced criticism when it verified a white supremacist, prompting the pause in its verification system.
When it comes to influencers and content creators looking to work with brands, though, the checkmark gives a reason to trust them. Anand Kishore, founder and president of AspireIQ, a software platform that connects brands with content creators, said verification can serve as a green light to brands.
“If a brand is looking at your profile and thinking of working with you, seeing that checkmark is probably a good thing,” Kishore said.
The good news for content creators is that some brands aren’t relying on verification to identify partners. Beauty products like hair-care brand Amika and shaving line Oui Shave have worked with unverified and verified content creators alike.
“There are a lot of people who don’t have a checkmark that are much smaller. They have 5,000 followers or 2,000 followers, but they have incredible engagement, which becomes a great proxy for authenticity,” Kishore said. “In general, we are finding folks with smaller audiences tend to have higher engagement rates … and what we’re finding is a lot of brands are expanding the scope of who they’re working with.”
Ultimately, though, Butler said platforms need to remain transparent about their processes. “What’s going to be a lot of these platforms’ downfall is that they don’t communicate clearly or have public standards about what it takes to be verified or recognized by the platforms,” he said.