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Sacco di Roma 455. Painted in the 19th century.Supplied

Like Alaric when he’d sacked Rome, Elon Musk, the outsider who’d long wanted in, has now taken over the eternal city of Twitter.

Mr. Musk’s first order of business – or the most prominent one, at least – has been to change one of the most curious aspects of the Internet: the little blue check marks next to users names’ that show them as “verified.” (It’s actually a white check mark on a blue badge, but who cares any more these days?)

The debate around this issue has been intense and even obsessive at times. But it has danced around the elephant in the room – our own vanity that has caused us to attach value to that checkmark.

Intentionally or not, Mr. Musk, whose day job is chief executive of Tesla Inc. TSLA-Q, has launched a grand social experiment. What that reveals is unexpected but straightforward: If purely digital milestones can have such real and tangible power over us, then perhaps the metaverse and Web3 are worth our investment.

Verification was intended as a way to simply prove identity. But it has evolved beyond that. Now it’s become a badge to show that you are important enough that your identity needs to be verified.

Maybe you don’t care about that. You live in the real world of real money and face-to-face social networks. But do you really?

Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover: a timeline

We use Internet-based tools to communicate, to work, to maintain social networks and to perceive the world outside our immediate vicinity. It is true for some more so than others – but we all do live on the internet.

And on the internet, blue checkmarks have been like a knighthood. There’s no tangible gain that comes from having such a title, but it grants prestige to those who care about it, signalling that they have done something important to warrant it – and that in itself is a form of value.

Indeed, in Spain, those with titles of nobility get no privileges but have to pay a special tax. And people pay it.

On Twitter, it’s similar. How much is the value of the prestige of a blue checkmark? One cryptocurrency influencer, “Bitboy,” recently revealed he’d paid US$15,000 to game the system to get verified on Twitter.

Bitboy, real name Ben Armstrong, might be sad to now think that he has vastly overpaid.

With the coming of our new Twitter king, no longer will that blue checkmark be hoarded by entitled elites. Mr. Musk has said that anyone who pays US$8 a month for the Twitter Blue service can get it.

So it’s not so much an overpayment on the part of Mr. Armstrong but a devaluation of what he’d bought. When everybody is verified, nobody is. The value of being verified had lain precisely in the fact that it couldn’t be bought.

A knighthood, after all, is worth buying only if you’re the only one being offered such a deal, and only if nobody else knows that you’re buying it.

Deep down, perhaps this is why, in mainstream discourse, there is so much outrage over Mr. Musk’s ownership of Twitter. The critics all have blue checkmarks. In devaluing what has previously made those critics important, Mr. Musk has taken something away from them.

Maybe that’s why Twitter has now added another “official” checkmark now to certain previously verified accounts and is rolling out various checkmarks of different colours. As well, when you click on a blue checkmark now, Twitter explicitly spells out whether or not the newly verified accounts have received verification because they paid for it through Twitter Blue – to separate the truly important ones from the ones who got it by paying US$8.

Now, wouldn’t it be great to have a blue checkmark that can’t be devalued in this way?

This is where the metaverse and Web3 come in. Virtual reality is just window dressing. At its heart a metaverse is just a different plane of existence (an online world, for instance), in which the stakes are as genuine as in the real world. All this drama over the blue checkmarks shows that we already live in a metaverse.

And Web3 – it’s a term still being defined, but it broadly refers to a decentralized, more democratic version of the internet, in which users hold power, not Big Tech.

Cryptocurrency is a big pillar of Web3 because, to those who embrace it, its greatest value is that there is nobody overseeing everything and users have absolute control over their own funds. NFTs (nonfungible tokens) are simply digital objects that can’t be arbitrarily taken away by whoever controls the platform.

There are still a lot of growing pains in all these new technologies and concepts. But as the Twitter drama shows, they will have a big role to play in our increasingly online future.

After all, that is at the heart of the new popularity of Mastodon, a new social media platform toward which some are flocking. It’s clunky and comes with its own problems, but it’s different from anything else we use. Mastodon is decentralized, with individual servers making their own rules. It’s a place that’s meant to be immune to what happened at Twitter, when one man can come in and change everything.

Disclosure: The author was verified on Twitter before Mr. Musk had bought the company.

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