It took Angela Rockstar about a year and a lot of nudging the CBS publicity department to get a blue check on Twitter. But she lost it April 1, along with about 400,000 other people who were previously verified. And she doesn’t think she wants it back.

“Having that checkmark opened up so many doors for me,” said Rockstar, a Columbia resident who was a houseguest on the 20th season of reality show “Big Brother” back in 2018. “It was a way to reach out to other people in entertainment, to book jobs, so that people knew that you were valid. It meant something. It means nothing now.”

She, like me, had what’s called a legacy blue check, meaning simply that our identities had been verified by the social media platform. The program was instituted in 2009 specifically to stop impersonation accounts from popping up. In the reality TV world, “fake accounts [were] made of us all the time, to start drama, like dropping the ‘N’ bomb on Twitter and saying it was you,” said Rockstar, who has almost 50,000 followers on the bird app and 40,000 on Instagram.

“Now people can just buy a check and say they’re you.”

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Like everyone I interviewed for this story, I have lost my check and, to quote The Offspring, I won’t pay, I won’t pay, I won’t pay-ay-ay-ay because of my strict policy against paying to write. That’s my job. I don’t pay anyone else to do that. I have a relatively modest 16.5 thousand Twitter followers, and had been verified since 2009 through my former newspaper, The Palm Beach Post, so readers and even possible sources trusted that they were talking to an actual reporter. It wasn’t about clout, though I admit it looked sort of cool.

“Now, if someone has a blue check, I’m not gonna go with what they have to say at all,” said Baltimore author and journalist Baynard Woods. “I have zero interest in paying for this.”

The blue ticks have been in contention since billionaire Elon Musk bought the microblogging site last year and touted the creation of the Twitter Blue program. Musk — who announced last week he is stepping aside as CEO (multiple outlets have reported NBC’s Linda Yaccarino will be his replacement) — said that the new badges, which offered perks like longer tweets, an edit button and a boost in the newsfeed, made access more egalitarian, allowing anyone with eight bucks the same distinction as those who were legacy-verified.

Since then, the site seems to have gone a bit topsy turvy, as it has become (more) awash in hate speech. Trolls who are back on Twitter mess with the so-called liberals who weren’t on the right-wing sites they’d flocked to. Echo chambers are no fun, apparently.

“Twitter used to be a place where there were trolls, but it definitely felt like a lot of us [legacy blue checks] were elevated and united in our vision for a more utopian world,” Rockstar said. “Now all the blue checks are like, ‘Pull yourself up by your bootstraps, racism isn’t real, you’re a man in a dress.’ What is going on?”

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Also, the majority of those legacy folks have declined to sign up for Twitter Blue, leaving the paid adherents distinctive mostly because now we all know they shell out cash to tweet. The truth is that those big, previously credentialed accounts were the ones driving conversations and engagement. Mashable reported in late March that more than half of blue check accounts have fewer than 1,000 followers. That tracks, since the ones that now regularly troll me usually have fewer than 200.

And why would someone like, say, mega-successful author Stephen King pay money to be the star of a formerly free website? The answer is he wouldn’t, but Musk “awarded” him, William Shatner and a number of other living and dead celebrities a check anyway, whether they asked for it or not. (It’s hard to ask for a blue check when you’re dead.)

“At this point, it’s like I’m writing for free,” Woods said. “I’m scabbing against myself.”

Catherine Woodiwiss, who got her blue check in 2013 when she was an editor for a D.C.-based publication, said she considered the mark “being part of an ecosystem of people who were writing in the public interest and had a responsibility to the public good, with the responsibility to be as accurate as I could be. It gave clarity of, ‘Is this person a real journalist?’ That was important.”

But this mess makes me ponder the point of the whole thing. Before Musk bought the site, people derisively called you a “blue check” to denote that you were an elitist, and I’ve seen people sneer at former check-holders that they’re just mad because now everyone can have one.

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Most of the people I know who lost those badges didn’t want them for clout, or to be cool when “it wasn’t about that. It was about the risk of impersonation. You have to know that I am who I say I am,” Woodiwiss said.

I get wanting an edit button or a longer character count, but paying $8 to own the libs, or the swells, or whomever you want to own today, seems weird. It reminds me of formerly celebrity-laden clubs on South Beach that used to require signing away your firstborn to get into, but now let anybody in. It’s what happens when the people you were trying to hang out with have moved onto some other cooler thing.

“It’s so interesting how the public perception changes. People who had never been verified used to dunk on the old guard, and now they’re dunking on the new guard,” Woodiwiss said.

Woods got verified during the racial uprising of 2015, when he was “doing serious work, covering protests, where it was important that what I was saying was coming from me. It was about having a way to connect with others in the social media world. The blue check worked.” But eight years later, he thinks that “tech bros like Musk have already destroyed much of the institution of journalism to make money. Something that was really valuable has been destroyed.”

Another point against paying is that verification can seem random. The algorithm boosts the posts of paid check mark accounts, even of people you don’t follow, so they are prominent on your feed.

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And last month, users found that when they entered the words “former blue check” in their bios, an actual check appeared next to their names like a social media ghost. “I saw three or four of those tweets and thought, ‘This is so silly,’ so I tried it just for fun,” Woodiwiss said. “And sure enough, I was like, ‘There it is.’ And then it went away.”

I am staying on Twitter for the moment because it remains fun (for now) as well as a useful tool for my work. But that blue check that used to indicate that I was a trustworthy professional? That’s gone.

So I guess I have to keep being a trustworthy person and hope other people notice.

Leslie Gray Streeter is a columnist excited about telling Baltimore stories — about us and the things that we care about, that touch us, that tickle us and that make us tick, from parenting to pop... 

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