Status as a Disservice

The blue check fiasco reveals a shallow understanding of how status motivates participation in social networks. Here is a deeper look.

All great ideas eventually get abused. With the “$8 blue checks for all” era upon us, it seems we have reached a new low point for Eugene Wei’s seminal theory of social networking, Status as a Service, published in 2019.

The original theory makes perfect sense: people tend to seek the most efficient paths to gaining social status, and social networks succeed when they give a meaningful segment of the population a uniquely efficient path to winning status. But a fixation on digital status leads to boring apps that nobody wants to use (anyone remember BitClout?). I worry this type of thinking will degrade Twitter.

Thankfully, there is an antidote. Instead of focusing on symbols of status, Twitter—and really anyone building a social network—should focus on helping users create things for each other that have real value: entertainment, knowledge, and connection. A person’s status is ultimately a function of the value they create for others. Making the symbols of status more visible without increasing value creation is like printing money without increasing the productive capacity of the economy: it feels good in the short run but leads nowhere. We are entering a period of non-transitory status symbol inflation.

Twitter allowing anyone to buy a blue check makes about as much sense as Harvard allowing anyone to purchase a degree: the value proposition evaporates when anyone can get it. Predictably, some folks at Twitter realized they needed a new tier above the blue check to preserve a status hierarchy, even before the $8 blue check subscription service went live:

Then, hours into the rollout of the new “gray check” system, Elon Musk decided he didn’t like it:

 

 

But wait! The legacy status system lives on. If you click someone’s check, you can still see if they “earned” it (left) or merely bought it (right):

All this fiddling with badges and checks is clearly a waste of time. It degrades the value of Twitter’s platform and does its users a disservice. Instead of self-defeating $8 cash grabs, Twitter should focus on deepening its users’ ability to create value for each other in the form of entertainment, knowledge, and connection—and to bring more valuable creators into the network. It’s the only sustainable path forward.

There is no alternative. The reason most people care about Twitter is because of the people they meet, the ideas they get exposed to, and the laughs they have when discovering something amusing and strange. When we get the feeling that someone is just playing a status game, it’s boring and untrustworthy. (Hence the disdain for “threadbois.”)

That being said, social status is real, and people are motivated to get it. But how does status really work? And how can social platforms sustainably harness it?

The theory of ‘status as a service’

“Let's begin with two principles:

  • People are status-seeking monkeys
  • People seek out the most efficient path to maximizing social capital”

So begins Eugene Wei’s essay. The basic idea is that we crave status because ever since we were monkeys, status conferred evolutionary advantages to the people who had it. In simple terms: being popular makes you more likely to survive and reproduce. Social networks’ main function is to give users an efficient path to gaining social status. 

On the more “obvious” side of how this works is that status is the main incentive for people who supply content to these networks. Most people who create content do so at least in part because they crave recognition and respect. (Not me, of course! I do it purely for the love of the craft *sobs*)

But even if it’s less obvious, status drives the demand side, too. We pay rapt attention to content when, at some level, we believe it can teach us something that will help us gain status. The gamer who watches tutorials, the teenager watching TikTok dances, and the programmer reading technical documentation all feel motivated to keep going because the content they’re consuming supports their personal status acquisition “business model.”

Marshall McLuhan had a quote on this that I often return to: “Anyone who tries to make a distinction between education and entertainment doesn't know the first thing about either.” Dopamine—the most overhyped of neurotransmitters—is fundamentally about learning. It’s a signal to your brain that you found something valuable in a similar context in the past, so you should keep going.

You can put all the badges you want on a profile, but our brains are smart. We only care about sources of real value. It doesn’t matter that much if there’s a check or not next to it—if the symbol stops correlating with something real, we get banner blindness. The argument isn’t that the check should be protected or that it matters much today, it’s instead that the actual function it plays was the original intended role: verifying that this user is who they say they are, rather than conferring status.

But obviously people do want status. The question is, how is it actually gained?

The evolutionary psychology of status

In 2001 a classic paper was published by Harvard professor Joseph Henrich that attempted to explain status (or, in his parlance, “prestige”) using evolutionary theory.

People who display “excellence in valued domains of activity” are treated with deference by other members of their group because it’s rational to want to be close to that person. First, because they have the power to help you. It pays to be friends with a skilled toolmaker when you need a new hand ax, and it’s nice to have the ear of the wise elder when big decisions are being made. Second, it’s good to have access to people with proven abilities, because humans are social learners. Monkey see, monkey do. The closer you are to a good role model, the closer you can observe them, the better you can do.

But it’s clear that people don’t just want to be high status. We also want to have genuine, non-transactional relationships. We want to feel like we’re a part of a community that is bigger than ourselves. We want to work toward goals that matter to us alongside other people who feel the same way.

With status alone, life feels empty. Admiration is not a substitute for friendship. 

To be clear, status and meaning are not mutually exclusive. In fact, I would argue that one is impossible without the other. Most people only achieve excellence in valued domains of activity when they have some purpose beyond status—otherwise they would not persevere when things get hard.

This might seem like a sentimental platitude, but I think it contains practical and underrated lessons for companies like Twitter.

Status update

If you think of social media as a battle royale where everyone is trying to make their status number go up, then it would make sense to design features like this:

(I feel comfortable picking on Nikita because his app is currently number one in the App Store, generating millions in revenue. He can take it 😅)

But I don’t actually think Twitter is actually an empty status game. I think most people come back every day for some combination of three things: to be connected to interesting people, to learn interesting things, and to be entertained. (“What’s happening right now” is a MacGuffin—just a way into those three main values.) As I mentioned earlier, I think the desire for status is connected to those values and impossible to separate, but it’s more nuanced than just showing off checks or growth numbers as if they’re digital bling.

Going back to the evolutionary origins of our drive for status, what we really want is to be valuable and valued within a community. This is not an original or new idea, and you don’t need any form of science to know it. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, published in 1759 by famed economist Adam Smith, there’s a line that perfectly captures this: “Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely.” And at the young age of 23 Abraham Lincoln concluded his first ever campaign speech by saying, “Every man is said to have his peculiar ambition. Whether it be true or not, I can say for one that I have no other so great as that of being truly esteemed of my fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem.”

To me it seems clear that this is how the vast majority of people feel. We don’t just want trappings of prestige, we want to deserve them.

Therefore, if I were Twitter, I would focus on helping users create more connection, knowledge, and entertainment—from which status naturally flows as a reward for excellence—rather than focusing on status symbols and encouraging users to chase status directly. The more creators engage in transparent clout chasing, the less they’re able to make people feel connected, informed, and entertained.

This is easier said than done, given that obviously people do want status and are at times willing to take shortcuts. But in the end it’s not all that complicated.

Value creation

To give credit where credit’s due, Elon Musk has expressed interest in several ideas that would be a step in the right direction—like longer videos, being able to attach long-form text to tweets, better search, and bringing back a version of Vine. I also think features like Birdwatch, which gives more contexts to tweets that may be misleading, are incredibly helpful.

But beyond any specific feature I think it’s important to cultivate an ethos of what makes a good Twitter account, and celebrate that. So far platforms like YouTube and TikTok have done a much better job at that. Because there is more friction to create, video platforms by necessity created an identity (“creator”) with a set of values, and celebrated the people who best embodied those values. Twitter so far has not articulated a vision of what makes a good tweeter. Even that phrase—good tweeter—to me makes me think of someone who is probably witty or snarky more so than genuinely helpful or entertaining, the way a good YouTuber is.

I don’t think it has to be this way. People like Visakanv Veerasamy to me show the way towards a better vision for what Twitter can be. He has built a real community that he has fun with, learns things with, and yes, earns status in.

But it’s the authentic old-fashioned kind of status that comes from a genuine desire to be helpful—not the gamified empty version that is fixated on the symbols.

I think over time Twitter will build new products that help people like Visa create more value. I’m sure there will be algorithm marketplaces, audio and video, private communities, and longform writing. But at the heart of it, it only works if there is a culture that can generate sustainable value. And all cultures need to be nurtured to stay healthy.

It might seem fuzzy or wishy-washy, but if I were a Twitter shareholder, that would be one of my biggest concerns.

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