Blue Ticks, Diamonds, and the Value of Quality

What is a diamond? It is a form of carbon. It is extremely hard and refracts light as beautiful, multicoloured rays. Because of that, diamonds have been used by humans as jewellery for millennia. But diamonds are expensive.

Coal is also a form of carbon. But coal is relatively inexpensive. The difference is that while diamonds are extremely rare, coal is highly abundant.

But are diamonds really that rare?

The thing is, today, diamonds are no longer just expensive gemstones. A diamond is a product—a product gift-wrapped in glamour, exclusivity, promise, myth, and imagination. As they say, a diamond is ‘forever’. It is essentially a brand. Just ask De Beers. Up until recently, De Beers could orchestrate the worldwide price of diamonds by squeezing or easing the supply. Because it could. And not just because they wanted to derive extraordinary and sustained profits out of their huge reserves but also to ensure that diamonds remained inaccessible, and hence, retained their aura, their appeal.

De Beers is no longer a monopoly. But what if De Beers (and other diamond miners) were not to do that? What would then happen to the price of diamonds? What would happen if everyone had a few or more diamonds? Would we look at them with the same awe as we do now? Or would we look at them more like we look at, say, laptops?

That should immediately bring OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) to your mind. The worldwide petroleum market is a cartel. Everyone knows it and everyone has made peace with it. And everyone wishes they had huge reserves of the black gold. OPEC+ members often get into spats because one of them has spent too much or has ambitions that need tonnes of money, and they want to extract more from their oil reserves. The others protest because more supply by one means less revenue for all. And after some negotiations, the supply of petroleum in the world market remains at a level that continues to keep it expensive—but not inaccessible—for the consumers, and hugely profitable for the sellers.

Now let’s talk about Twitter’s Blue Ticks (or check marks). Like diamonds, only a select few have them. They got them because their fame or public image or social contribution made them eligible. The blue ticks represented a kind of quality—expertise or experience or popularity. But now, Musk wants to sell the blue ticks for US$ 8 a month—like a magazine subscription. For most people in developed countries, eight dollars is nothing. So I imagine many, many people will go ahead and buy a subscription.

Or will they?

Would the blue tick retain the intrinsic value that it represents if it is in the possession of every Amar, Akbar, and Anthony? What would the blue tick mean then? It’s just a speculation, but I feel it will simply lose its meaning. Think how the value of iron changed from the beginning of the iron age to today—now it’s just another metal. In everybody’s possession, the blue tick would become just another … graphic.

Twitter will still make shit loads of money from selling blue ticks like soap bars. But that novelty will probably wear off soon. Blue ticks are a great idea, but I feel that retailing them like a commodity is a bad idea. The blue tick is not a product; it’s an idea; like diamonds, they stand for success, fame, persistence, longevity, extraordinariness—things that are not commonplace. Then how can you make the blue ticks commonplace and still have them mean the same to people? Retailing blue ticks will strip them of those qualities.

Musk is railing against the ‘elites’ who have the blue ticks. He says, why should some people have the blue ticks; everyone should be able to get a blue tick if they want to. IMHO, it is one of the weirdest ideas I’ve heard about retailing a prestige product.

Maybe some of the powerful elites manipulated the system to ‘buy’ blue ticks, I don’t know. Musk is likening Twitter (and blue tick holders) to De Beers and OPEC. He is against the control (or possession) of a few over a commodity that everyone wants. But the blue ticks are not diamonds or oil—people don’t use them the way they’d use diamonds or oil.

The blue ticks are not even sold; they’re ‘awarded’ to those who deserve it. Like the Emmys or the Oscars. The OPEC doesn’t award oil to the nations that do the most for the betterment of humankind, right? Imagine if every actor could buy an Academy Award for 100 dollars a pop. How ridiculous would that be?! Wouldn’t the audience’s admiration for that actor’s craft diminish? Or, more importantly, wouldn’t people then disregard the Oscars? Like it was a Hermès scarf the actor bought on Madison Avenue? Because, like the scarf, it now says nothing about the actor’s abilities as an actor. Similarly, once the blue ticks start retailing, they won’t say anything about the owner’s abilities and accomplishments as a personality. Nada. Zilch.

Another play Musk wants to try—because he’s desperate for revenue—is making the whole of Twitter a paid-only service. That means no free accounts. Everyone who pays a monthly subscription fee gets a blue tick. (A side benefit would be a drastic reduction of bots.) Millions of subscribers means millions of dollars in revenue, which would make Musk and his investors extremely happy. But tell me, honestly, are you going to pay US$ 96 a year so you can troll strangers on social media? I doubt it. Especially if you belong to a developing country.

What if people don’t warm up to the subscription idea? That’s the bigger existential risk for Twitter. Without millions of townsfolk (and rabble-rousers), Twitter will lose its value as what Musk calls a ‘Town Square’. It will become, at worst, a private club, and at best, a digital first-world nation.

What would I do if I were in Elon’s shoes? Probably shut it down. Just kidding (although that’s not such a bad idea! 😊) If I’m going to run a town square, I’d not charge the public; I’d charge the government(s), and all those who want to put up their billboards there, to run it. I’d raise ad rates and ask for government funding to sustain it. If Twitter indeed is a town square—a public space that belongs to the public—then some government (or international body) oversight isn’t such a bad idea. I know that means ultimately I’m charging the public (via taxes), but at least the public will now have a say in how Twitter is run.

Call it the Twitter Municipal Corporation.

Published by Anupam Choudhury

I'm a writer, editor, and blogger from New Delhi, India.

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